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Floating turbine buoys offshore wind potential

Story highlights

  • A floating wind turbine has been inaugurated off the coast of Agucadoura, Portugal
  • The 54-meter tall structure can produce enough energy to power 1,300 households
  • The consortium behind the turbine hope to install five more devices to create the world's first ever floating wind farm

Floating wind farms could soon be powering thousands of European homes after a prototype seaborne turbine sailed through technological trials off the coast of Agucadoura, Portugal.

The 54-meter tall renewable structure sits atop a semi-submersible platform known as a WindFloat situated five kilometers from shore.

It has been manufactured by WindPlus, a consortium of energy and clean-tech companies including Principle Power, Energias de Portugal and Vestas.

The group hopes their primary success will help secure European Union funding to add another five turbines alongside the existing model, engendering greater electrical production.

"The (initial) turbine is capable of producing 2MW (megawatts) instantaneously at any one time, given enough wind," says Alla Weinstein, CEO of Principal Power.

"This is equivalent to 1,300 households. The cumulative production thus far in Portugal has been 1.7GWh (gigawatt hours)," she adds.

    See also: Wind turbine creates water from thin air

    Unlike existing offshore wind farms and underwater tidal turbines, floating structures do not have to be permanently fixed to the ocean floor.

    Instead they are kept in place by a drag embedment anchor, much like the devices used to moor oil rigs in deep ocean environments.

    This means WindFloat structures could theoretically be transported to any ocean location where there is a strong wind resource, says Weinstein.

    An undersea cable transmits the energy produced on site back ashore. The costs for transporting electricity rise the further out to sea the structures are placed.

    "We feel the ideal distance is out of sight from land, typically 12-18 miles," says Weinstein.

    "This distance mitigates stakeholder visual concerns yet decreases the exposure to exorbitant transmission costs."

    Weinstein highlights lower construction costs -- the WindPlus turbine cost €20 million ($24.9 million) to build and install -- as a major advantage the technology has over existing offshore wind farms.

    See also: Who's funding Green Energy

    The fact that turbines and their platforms can be assembled on land (unlike bottom-fixed devices which are assembled at sea on specialized vessels and cost as much as $250,000 a day to charter) means "the cost and risk profile ... is significantly reduced," she says.

    But while bullish about the technology's potential, Weinstein admits there remains a way to go before floating turbines become profitable enterprises.

    The initial structure off the coast of Portugal is merely a pilot installation to prove the device works and is viable, says Weinstein.

    "At the moment we are making money but not enough to cover our costs," she says.

    "There is no doubt in my mind however that this is going to be a profitable technology and profitable venture in the future. It just takes time."