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We’ll All Float on OK!

Last week, the third annual Clean Energy Ministerial – a global forum for government ministers responsible for clean energy technology – came to a close, having led to the establishment of several notable initiatives on energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage-technology demonstration, and the sharing of data, among others. One development that received scant attention, however, was the signing of an agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom to collaborate on the research and development of floating wind turbine technology. The agreement could not only help lead to breakthroughs in an important and innovative technology, but is also a promising model for future collaboration between nations.

Offshore wind power is not a new concept, but conventional “fixed-bottom” turbines, which are attached to the seabed and the focus of most wind power advocates, are limited to water depths of roughly 200 feet. In contrast, floating turbines – so-named because they are attached to floating platforms or structures – allow for wind energy generation in much deeper waters. A demonstration turbine six miles off the coast of Norway, for example, bobs above water with a depth of 200 meters, or approximately 656 feet. Offshore fixed-bottom wind turbines are already celebrated for taking advantage of higher and more consistent wind speeds as compared to turbines on land, but floating turbines have several additional benefits. First, by being far out to sea, they essentially negate audio and visual pollution and can therefore combat the NIMBY mindset of some opponents of traditional offshore wind farms. Secondly, they can theoretically be brought into port when repairs are necessary, which negates the problems associated with making repairs out at sea in stormy weather. Thirdly, as they are not limited to water depths of 200 feet, they can be located more strategically, so as to avoid fishing and shipping lanes. Finally, winds are even stronger and more reliable over the sea than they are directly offshore, which greatly increases floating turbines’ wind power generation potential.

The memorandum of understanding signed at the Ministerial by Secretary Steven Chu and his British counterpart, UK Energy Secretary Edward Davey, enables “the sharing of best practices and expertise” that stem from previously authorized demonstration projects. The British contribution comes in the form of a £25 million (a little more than $40 million) floating turbine demonstration project authorized late last year by the UK Energy Technologies Institute – an interesting public-private partnership that focuses on the research, development, and demonstration of emerging clean energy technologies. Meanwhile, the US will share research that results from $180 million in announced funding for four offshore wind demonstration projects.

Given the discrepancy in project funding, it might appear at first glance that the UK has more to gain from bilateral collaboration. Nevertheless, none of the $180 million US funding opportunity has been explicitly allocated for a floating turbine project and only $20 million will be immediately available, with the rest of the money doled out over the next six years – subject to congressional approval. Furthermore, the British arguably have far more expertise when it comes to offshore wind technology in general, seeing as they have installed more offshore turbines than any other country in the world, whereas the US has only begun to move forward with several projects. Collaboration on clean energy  in general is far preferable to engaging in zero-sum competition, as unfortunately seems to increasingly be the Chinese strategy. The bottom line is that the US has much to gain from working with an ally like the UK in developing floating turbine technology and making it cheaper and more cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

Above photo is of the world’s first full-scale demonstration of a floating wind turbine, six-miles off the southwest coast of Norway. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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