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Sailing Toward Sustainability: The Rise of Floating Offshore Wind Farms

12th Mar 2024

In recent weeks, the renewables field has seen a surge in news coverage. From encouraging investments and new developments to employment creation and economic growth, the floating offshore wind domain, especially, has emerged as a lively hub. As a trusted provider of premium, on-spec optical components for both the subsea sector and wind monitoring technology, we explore the expanding realm and potential of these wind farms worldwide.

‍‍a wide shot of a row of windmills at sea

When compared to traditional fixed turbines, there are many pros of floating variants, such as a reduction in costly installation expenses, avoiding opposition from NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) local residents, and, importantly, optimal performance from stronger, more consistent winds farther out at sea. Jointly, these perks make floating offshore wind farms highly attractive to stakeholders.

During last month’s Subsea Expo, Neil Gordon, CEO of the Global Underwater Hub (GUH) membership body, reinforced this confidence, saying: “The majority of wind around the world will become floating offshore wind [1],” and the UK intends to use its oil and gas knowledge to “become that centre of excellence for dynamic cables for floating offshore wind.”

The UK’s Thriving Hub 

As we strive to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve carbon-neutral goals, the UK renewables sector is teeming with action – particularly in Aberdeen’s Westhill, billed as the ‘Subsea City’. In 2023, the city’s port welcomed more than 700 vessels, representing circa 12% of traffic, all linked to offshore wind programmes [2]. Furthermore, with several engineering firms, such as HonuWorx and Sulmara, moving headquarters and offices to the area, we expect even further expansion and ingenuity from the region.

In the vibrant hub, two Scottish universities – the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Environmental Research Institute and the University of Aberdeen – are working with the team behind the Salamander floating offshore wind project, recognised as a stepping stone to help Scotland and the UK move towards net-zero. They aim to unite to study the impact of the drifting structures on aquatic ecosystems [3] and learn about the ecological benefits that come with unfixed alternatives.windmills at sea with pictograms showing their day-to-day applications for consumers

Meanwhile, there’s also hope for the floating offshore wind field to open up a new industry for South West Wales, as intentions are revealed for leasing a trio of sections of the Celtic Sea for development [4].

Combined, this activity presents an opportunity to generate green power while creating new vacancies and boosting the UK market. In fact, according to The Crown Estate, which leases seabed sites, floating wind farms could potentially fuel “5000 new jobs and provide a £1.4bn boost to the economy [5]“.

The Symbiosis of Floating Solar Panels and Turbines

Of course, as developers, contractors, utility companies, the Government, and other supply chain investors gain a deeper understanding of the rewards of opting for buoyant wind generation, different renewable methods are also vying for attention.

Naturally, in sunnier climes, sustainability pioneers are focusing their efforts on solar photovoltaic (PV) opportunities, too. Take Italy, for example, where two businesses are joining forces to merge their know-how in a remarkable endeavour: a hybrid floating farm that integrates PV panels, known as floatovoltaics or offshore floating solar (OFS), with turbines. The partnership represents another branch of knowledge for us as a regular supplier of optical components for photovoltaic applications. It’s an exciting scheme where two optics-integrated technologies converge for high performance.

a floatovoltaics farm

The oceanic power plant, slated for fabrication in the Gulf of Taranto, will consist of wind turbines with a total capacity of 540 MW, complemented by 120 MW of PVs [6]. The venture brings together the expertise of SolarDuck, known for its elevated platform tech enabling PVs to “function effectively in areas with substantial wave heights”, and floating wind pioneer New Developments.

SolarDuck is also a key player in a current strategy that strives to develop the globe’s largest floating set-up [7]. The company’s OFS modular system will be deployed to RWE’s OranjeWind site, located 53 km off the Dutch coast. The initiative is part of the Nautical SUNRISE consortium, which is committed to researching and developing OFS as standalone units and for integration into offshore wind farms.

Similar to floating turbines, floatovoltaics offer numerous advantages, including optimised land usage and greater efficiencies. The gains stem from factors like the reflection of sunlight off the water, enhancing overall solar capture, and reducing habitat loss on shore. Consequently, floating PV plots can be found in various locations, from Portugal to China and Thailand, with plans for deployment in France [8], too.

an aerial picture of a floatovoltaics farm at sea

Anchored in Innovation

Inevitably, sites do require assistance, and specialised ships have been developed to help with the upkeep associated with running these at-sea systems. Known as multifunctional floating offshore wind farm support vessels (MFSVs), the dedicated craft helps with everything from monitoring, installation and transportation to emergency response and maintenance and repair. 

K Line Wind Service, a collaboration between Japanese shipping firm Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha and its domestic subsidiary Kawasaki Kinkai Kisen Kaisha, along with Japan Marine United Corporation and Nihon Shipyard have recently received Approval in Principle (AiP) for a design concept for one of these boats. The MFSV aims to contribute an “effective mooring method” and has been specifically designed to be the “…most suitable vessel for this purpose” [9].

a close-up of a windmill at sea

The Depths Ahead

The synergy between solar and wind sectors underscores the promising future of floating farms. As innovative projects continue to evolve and expand, we await additional significant advancements in renewable energy generation and sustainability. Plus, with ongoing research and alliances driving progress, we eagerly anticipate the next chapter in the evolution, poised to revolutionise the global energy landscape.