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Hope Floats for a New Generation of Deep-Water Wind Farms

A handful of companies are working to find a way to build floating wind farms in deep waters

The group fighting Cape Wind, the long-delayed offshore turbine project in Massachusetts, took its case to the state Supreme Court last week. The plaintiffs cite many reasons for opposing the project, but one major issue is the fact that homeowners on tony Cape Cod would be able to see the wind turbines from shore.

It's likely that if the proposed location of the wind farm had been further out into the water—out of sight entirely—rancor toward the project never would have grown so fierce. And there is another key advantage to placing wind projects further out in the ocean: the winds blow stronger and more consistently out over the sea. So a handful of companies are working to find a way to build wind farms in deep waters. But to harness the power of those far-out winds, the behemoth turbines will have to float.

European nations are far ahead of the United States on offshore wind development, including deep-water turbines, but interest in building in this country, too. Maine’s public utility commission closed bidding in May for an offshore wind energy pilot project that must include “one or more floating wind energy turbines in the Gulf of Maine.” In June, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory teamed up with a Norwegian wind company called SWAY to develop floating turbine technology. And this month, the Department of Energy awarded $500,000 to an Ohio-based offshore wind company designing floating turbines that absorb the force of wind and waves by allowing them to bend and sway like trees.

This technology is still a long way being economically feasible, because, as the U.S. Offshore Wind Collaborative reported in 2009, floating turbines represent “a substantial departure from the proven offshore wind turbines that exist today.” Companies are floating new ideas for the best model. Here are a few contenders:

The Frontrunner: Back in 2009, Siemens, the German electronics company, and Statoil, the Norwegian energy company, erected the Hywind, a commercial-sized turbine, off the coast of Norway. Statoil said at the time it would run the project for two years to test how the structure responded to wind and water. After a year of operation, the company reported it had produced more than enough energy and that the floating installation presented “no drawbacks.” Statoil is now looking at installing more powerful turbines and is eyeing Scotland and Maine as potential locations.

The Coolest-Looking: A Swedish company called SeaTwirl has designed a vertical turbine that uses a wide, circular base and spiking blades and looks almost like a lotus floating on the water’s surface. The company announced earlier this month that it had successfully tested its third prototype.

The Most Versatile: Wind turbines interfere with each others’ functioning, and the best arrangement depends on the direction of the wind. IDEOL, a French company, added a mechanism to its floating platforms that would allow them to be moved around in the water to better take advantage of wind conditions. Try that trick with an onshore wind turbine.

Photo via (cc) flickr user Slaunger

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