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In Depth: Aberdeen Bay may be Vattenfall's offshore Trump card

To the wider world, the proposed wind farm in Aberdeen Bay — known as the European Offshore Wind Development Centre (EOWDC) — is best known for inspiring fits of rage in US tycoon Donald Trump.

But for Vattenfall, which owns 75% of the £150m ($230m) project, the site is an essential stepping stone on the path towards Round 3, allowing component suppliers to learn from the successes and failures of their next-generation kit so that developers and financiers can become comfortable employing them at commercial wind farms.

Eohgan Maguire, Vattenfall’s head of research for the EOWDC, says the project will be a “hugely important piece of the jigsaw puzzle for reducing costs”, given the shortage of full-scale offshore wind test facilities in Europe, and the number of component makers clamouring for berths at such sites.

For all of its investments in offshore wind, Vattenfall still sources just a tiny fraction of its power from wind compared with the backbone of its renewables portfolio — hydro.

“One lesson Vattenfall has taken from hydro is the importance of having full-scale test facilities,” Maguire says. “This cannot be overstated.”

Indeed, the headquarters of the utility’s research and development unit is in a building attached to a 125MW hydro plant in central Sweden. Such facilities “allow us to learn what would be impossible in a laboratory or using numerical models”.

Vattenfall owns stakes in the three most-researched offshore wind projects in existence today: Denmark’s Horns Rev 1, the Netherlands’ Egmond aan Zee and Germany’s Alpha Ventus.

The information gleaned from those three wind farms has been invaluable in building — and repairing — Round 1 and 2 projects.

But none of those facilities can address the questions of size and scale presented by Round 3 sites, such as the 7.2GW East Anglia zone Vattenfall owns jointly with ScottishPower Renewables.

“We’re confident that Aberdeen Bay will give us the answers we need,” says Maguire.

The UK’s Crown Estate awarded Vattenfall and its partner, the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group, exclusive rights to the site — 2.4km off the coast — in 2010.

The planning application they submitted last August saw them downsize from 33 turbines to 11 in an attempt to appease Trump, who says he will abandon his planned luxury golf resort if the project goes ahead.

Vattenfall expects a final decision this year.

The Scottish government and Vattenfall are tight-lipped about the project’s chances of approval. But Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has expressed his annoyance with Trump, saying: “It would probably be best to allow energy policy of the country to be determined by the people who are democratically elected to determine it.”

Vattenfall intends to confront a broad range of issues at the EOWDC, but they all tie in to one ultimate goal: reducing the cost of building and running a massive offshore wind farm. “The numbers are quite startling,” Maguire says. “If we reduce [capital expenditure] at East Anglia by 1%, we could achieve benefits of £200m-300m. And for every 1% increase we achieve in [boosting energy yield], we’re looking at an extra £30m-40m of revenue each year, every year — and that’s just for East Anglia.”

Vattenfall has not yet decided which turbines will be installed at Aberdeen Bay, but the utility has previously told Recharge that it “will not be the established players”.

In addition to the turbines themselves, Vattenfall will develop monitoring systems that will allow project owners to keep tabs on the health and remaining lifetimes of subcomponents “at a level of precision not yet seen”.

Vattenfall is “likely” to employ three types of foundations — gravity-based, suction-bucket and jacket — at Aberdeen Bay, and the proximity to shore will allow novel installation techniques to be tested fairly cheaply.

French engineering giant Technip has been brought onto the project to manage and design construction.

The group will also explore issues such as grid-code compliance at the point where electricity from all the turbines converges.

Today, nearly all existing offshore wind farms employ just one type of turbine, and “even then compliance is tricky enough”, Maguire says.

In contrast, Round 3 projects are set to mix and match several types of turbines, making code compliance “very, very difficult”.

“Things fail when you’re trying them for the first time, and when you’re talking about electrical equipment, it’s generally an expensive failure,” Maguire says.

“We want to learn from the failures in ones, twos and threes — not in the hundreds, two hundreds and three hundreds.”

If Trump’s campaign succeeds, he will not just have torpedoed an 11-turbine offshore wind farm.

“[Aberdeen Bay] would bolster the industrial supply chain, and it would act as a springboard for the whole offshore wind industry,” says Maguire.