Many in offshore energy industry would have stoically shrugged if floating wind pioneer Power Inc (PPI) had sunk beneath the waves in the years since it first sailed its distinctive yellow triangular-hulled design into the market: the seabed is littered with marine engineers’ sketches, wave-tank models and part-scale prototypes, all casualties of the capricious market forces that have buffeted the fledgling sector in its formative years.

Far from suffering this fate, PPI is now seeing its WindFloat platform moving towards fabrication for an array projects off Portugal, France and Japan. And a recently sealed “alliance” deal with Norwegian offshore oil contracting giant Aker Solutions — which included taking a 5% share in PPI, rising to 10% by year end with the option of increasing ownership further at a later stage — promises not only to underpin a 9GW pipeline of projects, but also to supercharge the pace of industrialisation of the wider sector.

Aker Solutions’ move — one mirrored weeks later by compatriot Kvaerner’s collaboration deal with French floating wind outfit Ideol — is indicative of an inflection point that that the industry has been waiting for “for a while”, says Bruce Valpy, managing director at consultancy BVG Associates, which specialises in offshore wind market research and analysis.

“We’ve said for some time that however interesting the technology from the small suppliers like Principle Power, at some point floating offshore wind will need bigger engineering businesses to get involved,” he says. “That is, companies that can take design and construction risk, potentially providing a full EPCI [engineering, procurement, construction, installation] wrap as the space is less likely to involve the traditional offshore wind installers with their very big, specialist vessels.”

Floating wind has had backers in the oil industry for some years, not least Statoil, which switched on the world’s first commercial floating wind array, the 30MW Hywind Scotland, in the UK North Sea last autumn, as Valentina Kretzschmar, director of corporate research at energy analyst group Wood Mackenzie, points out.

“Diversification into renewables is increasingly on the strategic agenda of many oil & gas players, as they look to mitigate risks of climate change policies on their portfolios,” she states. “Aker Solutions, similarly to Statoil before it, will be able to leverage its offshore expertise in oil and gas in the floating wind power sector.”

But the animated market response that greeted Aker Solutions’ buy-in to PPI unpacks this idea of “expertise”. Most obviously, the 170-year-old contractor has maritime operations in its blood, and having delivered many of the most advanced floating drilling and production platforms for oil companies in the past 50 years, floating wind is a logical next step.

Of equal importance, though, is that the contractor has forged a risk-averse technology development philosophy — “design one, build many” — and a supply-chain management strategy forged in the same northern winds and waves in which floating turbines will soon begin operating in industry-making numbers.

Egil Boyum, executive vice president and head of products at Aker Solutions, says his company sees “a major opportunity” in floating wind as a lead-off strategic step in the contractor’s energy transition, and PPI as the “ideal technology partner” for the voyage.

“For floating wind to be successful, we need to make a ‘product’ out of technology, and this is where a company like PPI can benefit from partnering with a company like ours,” he states.

“We know how to standardise products and technologies. We’ve been doing it for years with floating drilling rigs and subsea equipment, and we can apply that expertise to offshore floating wind to help industrialise it and bring economies of scale.”

PPI chief executive João Metelo agrees the tie-up has a “clear industrial logic”.

“There are many capabilities that Aker Solutions has that are translatable — knowing how to develop and execute big projects offshore, knowing how to build big steel structures efficiently — and there are others, including serialisation of production, that are particular to the floating wind space,” he says.

“On balance, partnering with Aker Solutions will mean our ability to deliver a product in large numbers to our end-customer in different geographies will be much more comprehensive.”

Together with $17m in finance raised over the past 18 months through current shareholders EDP Ventures, Repsol, ASM Industries and Portugal Ventures, the new investment from Aker Solutions gives PPI the “wherewithal to push through our pre-commercial demonstration projects towards fully industrialised deployment of our technology in the 2020s”, explains Metelo.

“Having this investment solidifies our business model across the full life-cycle, from development, engineering and construction to project operations, at a time when the path to commercial deployment of floating wind is coming firmly into focus globally,” he adds.

PPI’s own “path to commercialisation” is going to start close to its spiritual home — just off the coast of Portugal where the company’s 2MW WindFloat1 prototype ran for five years — with the three-unit 25MW WindFloat Atlantic (WFA) array, which is being developed by the EDPR-led WindPlus consortium using 8MW MHI Vestas V164 turbines.

WFA, first announced in 2015, has braved the slings and arrows faced by many a vanguard industrial project, but a breakthrough on a long-running grid-connection issue was recently reached, which, according to João Paulo Costeira, EDPR’s chief development officer for offshore, means that a start to fabrication of the array’s WindFloats is now “imminent”.

It is obvious that the sector is becoming more and more active, with most stories being success stories.

“EDPR believes that with the evolution of costs, floating will become economic very soon,” he says. “WFA is key. Although there is substantial space for growth for fixed [foundations] in Europe, not all countries have natural conditions for this technology to be applied. Hence floating shall be the natural option for countries such as Portugal.

“It is obvious that the sector is becoming more and more active, with most stories being success stories, underpinning the ambitions of the companies that have made a bet on the floating technology.”

Down in the French Mediterranean, PPI is on track to see deployment of another trio of WindFloats as part of the Engie-led Eoliennes Flottantes du Golfe du Lion project. The 24MW array, also known as Leucate, is expected on line as early as the end of 2020, as one of four pilots being underwritten by the French government as it edges toward a first commercial-scale floating wind tender later this year.

“The critical success factors for scaling up globally will be the industrialisation and fast reduction of the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) to make floating offshore wind competitive, as well as support from the local governments by providing long-term visibility to the industry,” says Manahil Lakhmiri, Engie’s head of key program offshore wind.

“We are following up market opportunities globally, focusing mainly on promising zones where we think floating offshore wind would achieve significant LCOE reduction, meaning mid-water depth, high wind potential, grid connection, etc, and where there is a certain political willingness to support commercial-scale development.”

Pilot lights for Principle Power

Name | WindFloat Atlantic

Capacity | 25MW

Partners | EDPR, Repsol, Chiyoda, Engie, Mitsubishi

Location | 20km offshore Viana do Castelo, Portugal

Water depth | 85-100 metres

Commissioning date | December 2019

Name | Leucate, aka Les Eoliennes Flottantes du Golfe du Lion

Capacity | 24MW

Partners | Engie, Caisse des depots, EDPR, Eiffage, GE

Location | 18km off Leucate, France

Water depth | 70-100 metres

Commissioning date | Q4 2020

Name | WindFloat Japan

Capacity | ‘Multi-unit’

Partner | Mitsu Engineering & Shipbuilding

Location | unspecified site off Japan

Water depth | 70 metres

Commissioning date | ‘early 2020s’

The demonstrator being progressed off Japan by PPI and partner Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding (MES) remains the least advanced of its pre-commercial arrays, but Metelo notes “this could change quickly”.

“The Japanese government [having spent very large sums supporting the landmark 14MW Fukushima Forward floating wind demonstration project that came online in 2014] is seeking some credible answers as to how to development floating power economically,” says Metelo. “We are working together with MES and local authorities to provide those, to define the ‘next stage’, through next-generation multi-unit arrays of ultra-large machines that could jump-start development here.

“We are also pursuing a few other 25-50MW-scale opportunities in the UK and elsewhere in Europe that are part of our possible near-term plans, while we continue to build our wider pipeline of 90-700MW projects in different parts of the world.”

Costeira adds: “Going industrial is fundamental for scale to do its magic and allow for the big leap forward in terms of costs. Floating needs demonstrators, but real economic competitiveness can only come from truly large-scale projects.”

Prototypes proven and arrays under development, the European sector is now moving into mass production mode and towards the 350MW forecast by WindEurope to be on line by 2022 off the UK, France, Portugal and Norway — with a global fleet as large as the 12GW being “road mapped” to be anchored offshore by 2030, according to the UK’s Carbon Trust. Half of this will be in Europe, a quarter in East Asia and the remaining 25% off North America, it forecasts.

Although there is a growing bullishness that utility-scale commercial floating wind projects of 200MW-500MW will be a reality in the next decade, Michael Guldbrandtsen, managing consultant, offshore, at Wood Mackenzie-owned Make Consulting, notes that investments such as Aker Solutions’ are still needed to help surmount key supply-chain issues.

“Make sees a clear potential for floating wind and views commercialisation as the next step. But challenges remain, which will delay floating wind’s commercialisation, [including that] a supply chain capable of serial production of floating foundations still has to be established,” he says.

“Nevertheless,” he adds, “Aker Solutions’ investment represents an expectation that Principle Power will continue to be at the forefront of developments in the floating wind space in the coming years.”

Valpy sees a wider trend emerging around PPI’s hard-won progress. “The playing field for floating technologies is still open, but there does seem to be most momentum behind semi-subs like PPI’s which we see as the lowest risk solution with widest range of applications — not that it is necessarily the cheapest.

“Seeing Aker Solutions move in this direction [with PPI] is a strong signal that floating offshore wind is heading in the right direction and is good news for this still fledgling sector,” he adds. 

WindFloat 1 and beyond

Principle Power Inc (PPI) was one of the earliest movers in the floating wind space, installing a prototype of its semisubmersible WindFloat platform concept, topped with a 2MW Vestas turbine, off Portugal in 2011 — just two years after energy giant Statoil switched on its Hywind 1 unit off Norway — and running it for five years as a “commercial life-cycle” demonstration project.

The platform is a three-column steel design, which combines water entrapment, or ‘heave’, plates at the base of each column along with an “active ballast” hull-trim system and a conventional three-line, chain-based mooring spread for stability offshore in water depths of 40-1,000 metres.

The WF1 produced at a very high capacity throughout its time in the Portuguese Atlantic, generating nearly 17GWh as it weathered extreme environmental conditions, including waves more than 17 metres high and winds in excess of 60 knots (111km/h).

The next-generation WindFloats being fabricated for array developments off Europe and Asia will be considerably lighter relative to the 2MW flagship — as turbine capacity will quadruple to 8MW but hull weight only double — and have a draft of no more than 20 metres. The new models will represent “a significant cost savings to the customer on a levelised cost of energy basis”, says PPI boss João Metelo.