The first of a two-part series.
ESBJERG, Denmark — Flying 56 miles west from this port, you are greeted by a 10-story, yellow, boxlike platform rising out of the North Sea. It is called SylWin1, the connection to Europe’s electric grid from one of the largest power plants ever built offshore. Beyond it, arrayed over 27 square miles of ocean, are the 80 Siemens 3.6-megawatt turbines of the Dan Tysk wind farm.
For Europeans, and perhaps for some Americans, this may be their energy future. The unobstructed winds at sea here are capable of spinning up enough power to electrify around 1 million German households.
It’s an interesting sight to behold, not least because of the technical and engineering prowess required to overcome an often hostile North Sea environment. Yet in five years’ time, Dan Tysk might be outdated — if Siemens, MRI-Vestas, Dong Energy and other big corporate players in the offshore wind power industry are to be believed.
Turbines are going to grow bigger, to the 6-to-8-MW range, while the transformers that serve them will shrink, saving on production and installation costs. That’s the conclusion of a new study published by Ernst & Young, which finds the European offshore wind market nearing the ability to compete with traditional gas and coal markets if it sheds 26 percent of outlays by 2023.
The report states that the industry can significantly reduce costs over the next five years through a number of key actions. These include deploying larger turbines to increase energy capture (9 percent); fostering competition between industrial players (7 percent); commissioning new projects (7 percent); and tackling challenges in the supply chain such as construction facilities and installation equipment (3 percent).
The industry, differing slightly in its assessment, pushes the date forward by three years. By 2020, a united industry that pools together its knowledge and experience could conceivably hit a price below 10 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, at which point it will have achieved a more competitive footing.
Larger turbines, smaller accessories
That was the big message the three leading offshore wind companies recently unveiled at the European Wind Energy Association Offshore 2015 conference.
"Going forward, you will see the industry can live with a declining subsidy, and then, in the period between 2020 and 2030, we will reach grid parity," predicted Michael Hannibal, head of the offshore unit at Siemens Wind Power.
How the companies get there — together or apart — is an open question, given the intense competition that normally drives the two offshore wind technology leaders, Siemens and MRI-Vestas. Both pledged their fealty to the effort through a joint declaration that outlined a list of five cost-cutting measures to be taken up by suppliers across the value chain. Whatever the outcome, one thing that’s for certain is that most of the innovation will take place in Denmark, where today’s leading companies all reside.
Before flying out to Dan Tysk, reporters visited Siemens’ pre-assembly site at the port of Esbjerg on Denmark’s north coast. Companies representing at least 80 percent of the Danish wind energy consortium are clustered within 190 miles of the port. They include shipping companies, operations and maintenance service firms, and marine construction experts.
Last year, Siemens, the world leader in offshore wind, shipped more than 300 turbines at this facility. Components like towers and hubs were pre-assembled to prepare them for installation with jack-up vessels.
"That involves no production," said a Siemens employee who took reporters on a tour of the assembly area.
Siemens has an order backlog of more than 1,100 wind turbines, with four projects sitting on the dock awaiting transport to wind farms in Germany and the United Kingdom.
All will be loaded in a highly prefabricated process, with nacelles, for example, coming with their hub and drivetrain already in place. Three-piece towers are fit together by crane and loaded onto the vessel in an upright position, while the blades are hoisted onboard in a single lift. This kind of modular assembly is now standard in the industry. Siemens wants to take it one step further in terms of service and maintenance, so parts can be snapped in and out in their entirety while out at sea, thus cutting down on repair times.
Winning a war against cost
Perhaps even more bankable is serial production of Siemens’ new 7 MW turbine expected by 2017. According to Hannibal, the new machine would require only a "small improvement" of the existing 6 MW model, but account for 10 percent more output using essentially the same supply chain.
In the future, crews will sleep onboard so-called Service Operational Vessels equipped with hydraulic cylinders, which will rise from the deck, enabling technicians to walk to the nacelles, or hubs of the turbines, via gangways. It’s much safer and faster than crawling up and down windblown ladders over the heaving sea.
Yet if there is any one game-changer on the list, analysts say it lies in Siemens’ new alternating-current grid access solution, which, in the case of Dan Tysk, would replace two large intermediary substations with lighter versions situated between the wind farm and the SylWin1 high-voltage direct-current platform.
Suitable for all wind power turbine models, in some cases the new device would be small enough to be installed like a balcony between the foundation and turbine shaft. A third smaller in size compared with a conventional platform, estimates and costs will be reduced by up to 40 percent.
"Size is cost," explained Tim Dawidowsky, head of transmission solutions at Siemens Energy. "But for turbines, while they get bigger and bigger, we on the transmission side are going smaller and smaller and smaller."
As for changes to the DC platform, Dawidowsky first reminded media members on a tour of the wind farm of what had been accomplished in the preceding six months with the connection of four HVDC grid platforms for TenneT in the North Sea. Altogether, the grid connections will supply electricity from offshore wind power for about 3 million German households.
"There was a lot of doubt this would be the right technology," Dawidowsky said. "I highly recommend to stay tuned as we launch something in the coming months which will also help reduce costs on the D.C. side."
Tomorrow: The first steps of offshore America.