Installing wind turbines on the high seas is the holy grail for generating renewable energy. It’s there that powerful winds blow strong enough to potentially power the whole world without an iota of carbon pollution.
And while we haven’t attained it quite yet, a brand new floating wind farm in Scotland could be a big step toward that future.
The Hywind project officially started generating electricity about 16 miles off the Scottish coast on Wednesday. It’s an amazing feat of engineering that will generate enough electricity to power up to 20,000 homes.
The size of the turbines boggles the mind, let alone the fact that they actually float. Each one weighs 12,000 tons and stands 830 feet tall from tip to base, more than three times the height of the Statue of Liberty. That base is ballasted so each turbine floats upright. To keep the turbines from drifting out to sea, chains about 1.5 miles long and 1,200 tons in weight are attached to giant suction anchors on the ocean floor.
Installing one, let alone five of these marvels wasn’t cheap. The effort cost Norwegian oil company Statoil $263 million. And producing energy from the floating farm (or “park” as they charmingly call it in Scotland) still costs more than onshore and even non-floating offshore wind farms. But the Hywind project isn’t just some expensive Rube Goldberg machine.
The design of these floating offshore wind turbines allow them to be placed in up to 2,400 feet of water. In comparison, anchored offshore turbines can only be placed in water 200 feet deep. The floating design will allow Statoil to put wind turbines further out in the open ocean where the winds are much more consistent and powerful.
“The learnings from Hywind Scotland will pave the way for new global market opportunities for floating offshore wind energy,” Irene Rummelhoff, an executive vice president at Statoil, said in a statement.
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that wind farms in the open waters of the North Atlantic could generate up four times more electricity than their land-based counterparts. Turning the region into a giant wind farm sacrifice zone could theoretically generate enough electricity to power the entire world.
“We show that there is really something special about some ocean areas like the North Atlantic where substantially higher rates of extracted power may be sustained from a purely geophysical perspective,” Anna Possner, a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science who led the study, told Earther.
Some entrepreneurs are also considering floating offshore wind as a solution in California where the continental shelf quickly falls away to deeper waters (and the NIMBY game is strong).
It may seem surprising that Statoil developed the Scottish wind farm since they’re, well you know, an oil company. But in recent years, Statoil has developed a handful of offshore wind projects around the European Union, and operates an offshore carbon capture and storage project as part of its roadmap to climate-proof the biz.
The Hywind project will eventually be hooked up to a battery created by Masdar, a renewable energy company from the United Arab Emirates. Battery storage is crucial to wind farms because they can ensure that there’s still power available for consumption even when the wind isn’t blowing. The UAE may seem like another strange bedfellow, as one of the world’s biggest oil producers.
But it’s increasingly clear the writing is on the wall for fossil fuels. And both Statoil and the UAE have made efforts to start transitioning how they operate to prepare for that new reality. The Hywind wind park is a proving ground for what their future ambitions could look like.