Saint-Nazaire anoints the next floating wind crusader

DISPATCHES | The port city in western France might one day be looked back on as a birthplace of the global floating wind sector, writes Darius Snieckus

On the Quai des Charbonniers – where, as the name suggests, boat-loads of coal were once unloaded in the port of Saint-Nazaire – a chapter in the future of energy is being written.

Under a nest of scaffolding, the first of a new breed of floating wind turbine, a concrete-based concept being hatched by French outfit Ideol for the EU’s FloatGen project, has reached the half-way point in its construction, with the development team on track to have the prototype, topped with a 2MW Vestas V80 turbine, producing power from a site in the Atlantic by the end of the year.

The Ideol unit has assured itself of a place in history not just as the first floating wind turbine to be installed off France – joining international flagships including Statoil’s Hywind 1 off Norway, Principle Power’s WindFloat 1 off Portugal (brought ashore for planned ‘decommissioning’ last year), and the trio of prototypes installed off Japan as part of the Fukushima Forward demonstrator – but also as the first wind turbine of any sort in French waters.

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But far from resting on its laurels, Ideol is looking beyond FloatGen, to the development of a new industrial strategy that moves offshore wind into cost-slashing “mass deployment”, modelled on large infrastructure projects such as bridges and breakwaters where concrete structures are poured, floated out and installed often as fast as one a week.

Bouygues Travaux Publics (BTP) has been brought in as a partner for FloatGen for just this reason. The civil engineer – which crucially has an offshore construction heritage passed down from its former sister company Bouygues Offshore, once a mainstay of the North Sea oil sector – is bringing its experience in executing industrial marine projects, including a 100-caisson seawall built in the same number of weeks off Tangiers, Morocco, to bear on Ideol’s first unit.

“FloatGen is a highly structured project, with a very clear roadmap. The aim is to demonstrate the technical viability of the [Ideol floating wind] solution of course, but also to be a project that would be a big step toward mass deployment of floating wind off Europe – and then beyond too,” says Ideol chief marketing and sales officer Bruno Geschier.

BTP’s director of Grand Projects Perceval Modiano adds: “Optimising construction methods is a key area of innovation for floating wind and one we feel we can help with, but also innovations in materials and reinforcement methods – these are innovations that we as civil engineers have a highly developed knowledge of.”

As a country, we have lagged behind in onshore and offshore wind, but with floating wind we have a chance to be global leaders
Perceval Modiano, BTP

Founded in 2010, Ideol, which currently has 60 employees, is unlikely to stay small for long. This year it has signed two potentially market-making tie-ups, one with the floating wind spin-off of tidal developer Atlantis Resources and the other (announced this week (13 March) with Irish renewables group Gaelectric, which each have multi-gigawatt project pipelines, adding to an existing portfolio with projects in the UK, Japan, Taiwan and France. The distance from FloatGen to full-throttle commercialisation could be covered in short order.

Forecasts of the build-out of floating wind power around the world vary: consultancy MAKE’s ready reckoner puts it at at least 3.5GW by 2030 turning at a competitive levelised cost of well under €125 per MWh ($133/MWh). The UK Energy Technology Institute suggests that on current trajectories floating wind power could be down to less than €100/MWh as early as 2025.

But if each of the front-running floating wind countries of Japan, France and the UK hits its high-end scenarios, the fleet could be much bigger.  The French wind industry, through its advocacy body FEE , wants the government to tender 2GW "in early 2018 at the latest" as a springboard to having 6GW turning by 2030 – and producing cheaper energy.

The International Renewable Energy Agency sees industrial-scale floating wind as nothing less than a “key [cost-reduction] driver” in opening up new, deeper-water markets to offshore wind power production in the next decade, hand in hand with the upscaling of turbines towards nameplates of 15MW.

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Ideol would happily see its ‘damping pool’ concept become a foundation of choice for the next generation of ultra-large offshore turbines, not least because its design would need only to be scaled up fractionally from the current 36-metre-square model for a 2MW turbine to one 50 square metres in size to handle an 8MW one.

Back quayside in Saint-Nazaire, the next concrete wall of the Ideol FloatGen unit is being formed. Standing under a banner that translates ‘Here is being built France’s first sea-going wind turbine’, Modiano notes: “As a country, we have lagged behind [other nations in the size and speed of renewable energy build-out] – in onshore and offshore wind, but with floating wind we have a chance to be global leaders.”

In truth, floating wind – dovetailing as it does the innovation of state-of-the-art new energy technology with the industrial calculus of mass production – might well be just the jump-start required for the voyage toward the 8GW-plus of marine renewables France wants by 2023. And that the wider energy-hungry, climate-changing world needs, as soon as possible.