Energy Future

Offshore wind power: Suck it and see

Anmar Frangoul | Special to

With over 11,000 miles of rugged coastline, shallow waters and more than 1,000 offshore wind turbines, the U.K. is recognized as a global player in the field of offshore wind energy.

Less controversial than their onshore cousins, which have sparked numerous protests and political debates, the future for offshore wind power -- it currently generates enough electricity to power two million homes, according to RenewableUK, a not-for-profit renewable trade association -- is looking good.

In March this year, investment worth £310 million ($523 million) in the U.K.'s offshore wind sector was announced, with the potential to create 1,000 jobs.

However, there is one significant barrier to expansion -- the costs of running an offshore wind program are very high. By 2020, the U.K. authorities hope to have reduced the cost of offshore wind to £100/MWh.

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One way to help lower costs may be to use suction power.

It is within this climate that the U.K. Carbon Trust is overseeing the Offshore Wind Accelerator program, which is hoping to reduce the cost of offshore wind through innovation and the use of technology. According to the trust, innovation within the industry could reduce costs by £37.50/MWh.

"Investing in innovation has huge long-term benefits," Breanne Gellatly, Associate Director, Innovations, Offshore Wind Accelerator Programme, told in a phone interview. "And the challenge with offshore wind versus onshore wind is the amount of money you need to get a project built."

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Working with the U.K. government and nine major developers of offshore wind, including E.ON and Statoil, the program is looking to drive down costs through innovation in five key areas, including cable installation, electrical systems and the foundations of wind turbines.

One of the more eye-catching innovations the programme has helped to develop is the use of a "suction bucket" technique to create solid, secure foundations for towering, deep water turbines.

In 2013, the first "suction bucket" foundation was installed at the Dogger Bank, more than 100 miles off the east coast of England. Using the suction bucket technique negates the need for more expensive, steel based foundations.

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"We're excited about what this means for offshore wind development," Phil de Villiers, former head of the Offshore Wind Accelerator Programme, said at the time. "The foundations represent 30 percent of the total cost of a wind farm. Reducing the capital and installation costs could really make an impact on the viability of future projects," de Villiers added.

If the costs of offshore wind can be reduced significantly, then the potential is huge, according to Gellatly. "The thing that is so great for the UK about offshore wind is that it's a technology that is scalable," she said.

"We can become industry leaders in it. We already have a lot of expertise in fabrication and installation, and we've got a really big head start in becoming the world leaders in offshore wind," Gellatly added.