IN DEPTH: Samsung's offshore giant

Looming out of the morning autumn mists in the shallows off Methil, northeast Scotland, stands the largest, most powerful wind turbine ever built.

The S-7.0-171 is Samsung Heavy Industries’ bet for Europe’s expected offshore wind bonanza, a 7MW behemoth with a rotor spanning a record 171 metres — more than twice the wingspan of the Airbus 380.

It is an awe-inspring sight, and an extraordinary achievement for a company with a relatively short track record in the wind industry — and no experience at all in the offshore wind game.

“This is very much a first experience for us,” says Samsung’s deputy project director, Lee Youngjae. “We cannot say that there have not been problems but we find now that it goes very smoothly. Now we need to test, [then] we need Round 3 orders to proceed.

“We have made some progress [in sales discussions with developers], but nothing confirmed yet.”

The South Korean manufacturer may have outpaced some of its more experienced competitors in getting a 7MW prototype into the water, but a number of its rivals look to be further ahead in landing first orders.

REpower already has 48 of its 6.15MW 6M turbines spinning at Belgium’s Thornton Bank 2; Siemens has inked a framework deal for scores of its 6MW SWT-6.0-154s. And while Vestas and Mitsubishi have yet to finalise deals for their 8MW V164 and 7MW SeaAngel models, they are each in a prime position to take advantage of long-standing development agreements with major offshore clients.

But even if Samsung fails to persuade developers to purchase its new 7MW turbine, the company has such deep pockets that it would be able to buy its way into Round 3 projects to prove up the machine.

“Ultimately it is going to be those with the biggest balance sheets that win,” states GL Garrad Hassan chairman Andrew Garrad. “It will be a case of having the vast suite of technological kit and finance. Samsung has a handful of land-based machines, but this is Samsung — if it wants to do something it will simply do it — it can’t create a market, yet it certainly could take an equity share in a big offshore project to get it going.”

He continues: “They may not have the cosy relationships of some of the others [such as Vestas with Dong or Mitsubishi with SSE] but they have come [to the UK] strategically to be part of the game. The impact of Samsung, if Samsung decides to play, will be very big indeed.”

First project-scale sales — of at least 50 units — would push the button on the company’s plans to build a giant turbine factory in Methil, alongside the prototype at Energy Park Fife (EPF) — a renewables manufacturing and research complex set up by business development agency Scottish Enterprise (SE). The plant would bring up to 500 jobs to an area that has struggled as the UK offshore oil industry declined and steel fabrication work dried up.

The first series-produced S-7.0-171s are likeliest to be built far from Methil and installed at Samsung’s own 84MW wind farm off the coast of South Korea’s Jeju island, one of the country’s first commercial offshore facilities.

However, the prize projects in Samsung’s sights remain in UK waters.

Developments on Methil’s nautical doorstep — such as the 3.5GW Firth of Forth zone and the 1GW Inch Cape — are on the company wish list, along with projects in the UK’s Round 3, which will see up to 32GW installed at a cost of about £100bn ($157bn).

Samsung was attracted to EPF — built on the 54-hectare site of a former colliery — by the 10-metres-per-second winds gusting steadily in off the North Sea.

A project team of 20 moved in to the complex’s Renewable Innovation Centre earlier this year after SE awarded £6m to Samsung from its Powers prototype demonstration fund to test and potentially manufacture the turbine at Methil.

“It was a good fit on many levels,” says SE project manager David Garry. “[Dutch turbine designer] 2B had just left and Samsung’s prerequisite for building a prototype in Scotland was a test site, which we had already consented, and they hoped to move straight on from a testing phase to manufacturing. We have the land and could organise a grid connection to accommodate that ambition.”

SE — which has been matchmaking turbine prototypes to sites for Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Areva among others — is hoping that EPF will be a model that can be used to rejuvenate the many mothballed offshore oil fabrication yards along the northeast Scottish coast.

“We are in a still fairly new industry. But you can look at the oil and gas industry experience that Scotland has, we can built on that,” says Garry. “When we took over [Methil Docks] in 2006, the quaysides were crumbling. We made the investment. Now Samsung is here. We believe we can bring this yard and others back to life.”