Inside clean energy: for offshore wind power, bigger is much cheaper

Five years ago, when workers off Rhode Island installed the first offshore wind farm in the United States, the 6-megawatt turbines were almost confusing in size, nearly double the height of the Statue of Liberty. and its base.

But fat continues to grow.

Last month, GE Renewable Energy announced that it had started operating a prototype 14-megawatt offshore wind turbine, nearly three times the height of the Statue of Liberty and its base, in the waters off Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Low.

Siemens Gamesa and Vestas, two other major turbine manufacturers, are developing 15 megawatt models. Growth will continue, with companies and analysts claiming a 20 megawatt turbine is within reach.

This race to build bigger turbines has a practical purpose. As turbines get taller and increase their production capacity, they become more efficient and their electricity becomes cheaper for consumers.

A recent article, published in the journal Applied energy, shows the scale of the savings with a level of detail that was not previously available. The research, conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, shows a savings of 24% per unit of electricity for a hypothetical wind farm using 20 megawatt offshore wind turbines, compared to a wind farm using 6 megawatt turbines.

Falling costs are a big problem, to the point that they make offshore wind competitive with the electricity costs of natural gas power plants. (Onshore wind and solar are always cheaper than all the other alternatives).

“A 20% change is significant, it’s very significant,” said Matt Shields, engineer in the energy lab and lead author of the report.

For context, he noted that savings of 1 or 2 percent can sometimes be the difference that makes a project financially viable for developers.

Shields told me he was surprised at the extent of the savings. The results are particularly important, he said, because they do not take into account the non-financial benefits of offshore wind, such as the climate benefits of clean energy and the fact that offshore wind farms can be built near the main population centers.

In states, like New Jersey and Virginia, which have laws requiring the construction of offshore wind turbines, this research shows that policies can be implemented affordably. The same goes for national goals, like the Biden administration’s goal of building 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030.

The authors of the article created a model of the costs and electricity production of two wind farms:

  • A wind farm uses 6 megawatt turbines and has a capacity of 500 megawatts. Its construction would cost more than a billion dollars.
  • The other wind farm uses 20 megawatt turbines and has a capacity of 2,500 megawatts. Its construction would cost more than 5 billion dollars.

The bigger one has a higher initial cost and costs more to maintain on an annual basis, but it generates much more electricity and does so more efficiently than its smaller counterpart. The result is that the largest wind farm has a big advantage when measured in terms of cost per unit of electricity.

The ‘discounted cost’ of the large wind farm, which takes into account construction and operating expenses, is $ 53.30 per megawatt hour, while the smaller wind farm has a discounted cost of $ 69.80 per megawatt hour. .

Shields said it’s important to note that the cost benefits come from economies of scale from both individual turbines and greater capacity for the wind farm as a whole. So, the bigger it is, the better in several ways.

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While this 24% decrease in costs is significant, the document indicates that there are many opportunities to reduce costs even further, by streamlining the process of installing turbines and finding more efficient ways to deliver the turbine. electricity from turbines to shore, among other changes.

Shields said the potential for further cost savings is one of the most encouraging aspects of his research.

“This gives us an indication of the next step and what other innovations are needed,” he said.

But it’s important to note that 20-megawatt wind turbines don’t exist yet, in part because the industry hasn’t yet figured out how to build, deliver and assemble such parts.

In addition, the US offshore wind industry does not yet exist in substantial form. These are mostly important announcements for projects that still require regulatory approvals and whose construction would not begin for years. The 30-megawatt Block Island wind farm remains the largest in the country.

The next big step is Vineyard Wind 1, the 800-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts that is expected to begin onshore assembly work this year and offshore assembly work will follow in 2022. The project will use 13-capacity turbines. megawatts of GE Renewable Energy.

So if you’re looking for a tangible sign that the potential Shields describes could be realized, be on the lookout for some really big machines erected south of Martha’s Vineyard.


Other testimonials on the energy transition to remember this week:

The project consists of drilling lithium in the Salton Sea: A drilling rig is working near the shore of the Salton Sea in California to help develop a project that would produce electricity and lithium, as Sammy Roth reports for the Los Angeles Times. The Hell’s Kitchen project would bring hot water to the surface that would turn into steam that would generate electricity in a geothermal power plant. Water also contains high levels of lithium, the metal which is a key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries. The project has the potential for multiple clean energy benefits, but it is not yet clear whether the system will work or be profitable.

Plans for small nuclear reactors are moving forward alongside big talk: X-energy is developing a power plant with four small nuclear reactors in Washington, part of a nuclear industry push to build a new type of nuclear power plant. The industry is hoping that small reactors can be manufactured easily and cheaply and provide a reliable source of carbon-free electricity, as the Seattle Times’ Hal Bernton reports in partnership with Inside Climate News. But reactors are not without controversy. Additionally, Bernton and Judy Fahys from Inside Climate News have a story on the prospects for small nuclear reactors in Wyoming. While there is some optimism about these factories, critics say this is just a new flavor of a technology that comes with the same old concerns about safety and high costs. .

Global sales of electric vehicles are skyrocketing: Electric vehicles are rapidly moving from margins to the mainstream of global auto markets, compromising 7.2% of sales in the first half of 2021 compared to 4.3% in 2020, according to BloombergNEF. In the United States, electric vehicles held a market share of around 3%, a significant increase as well, as Robert Walton reports for Utility Dive. BloombergNEF predicts that electric vehicles will account for 20-30% of the market in China, the European Union and the United States by 2025.

Rivian has $ 0 in sales and is now the third most valuable automaker in the world: Following an initial public offering of its shares last week, electric truck maker Rivian has a market value of $ 140 billion, more than any other automaker in the world except Toyota and Tesla, as Allison Morrow reports for CNN. That’s even if Rivian hasn’t made any money yet. The company produced only a few of its first trucks, with initial orders going mostly to employees. Investors are optimistic because Rivian has strong support from Amazon and the company’s truck has received rave reviews in the automotive media.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly newsletter and analysis on the energy transition. Send tips and questions to [email protected]


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