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Offshore Wind Energy to Get Cheaper

Written by Luke Burgess
Posted May 27, 2019

The U.S. Department of Energy has begun working with major American companies in an effort to make offshore wind power a lot cheaper.

The DOE recently allocated up to $8 million to four projects that aim to “develop more efficient, smaller, and lighter-weight generators.”

The department says new designs could make the next generation of offshore wind turbines 50% smaller and lighter. And that could ultimately reduce the cost of offshore wind energy by as much as 25%.

The Energy Department hopes the development of smaller, lighter, and more cost-efficient turbines will nudge manufacturers to build generators that can sit as much as 300 feet above the waterline.

According to OffshoreWindHub.org, today's offshore wind turbines sit about 82 feet above the water's surface.

Project teams are being led by ABB, WEG Electric Corporation, American Superconductor, and General Electric. At the end of one year, the DOE will select one of the projects to receive $6.4 million to build a full-scale prototype.

The teams are developing new direct-drive technologies for their projects. And these things are pretty cool. Direct-drive machines can generate electricity without using a gearbox. This increases efficiency, reduces noise and maintenance, provides higher torque at low RPMs, and increases the overall lifetime of the mechanism.

Direct-drive machines also don't rely on heavy rare earth elements.

That's quite noteworthy right now, with China threatening to put tariffs on its rare earth exports, which account for 95% of all the world's resources.

WEG Electric Corporation, American Superconductor, and GE all said specially that they plan to use less of the heavy rare earth materials than conventional geared turbines to make their designs weigh less.

Meanwhile, ABB said it will develop a generator that uses a magnet cooling system to be used in either geared or direct-drive turbines.

Today, direct-drive mechanisms are found in about 25% of wind turbines on land and 50% of those installed at sea. According to Aaron Barr, senior consultant at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, “Offshore turbines are expected to be 60 percent direct-drive by 2025.”

The DOE commented on the project, saying, “As we look to the future with floating offshore wind platforms to access wind resources where the water is too deep for conventional foundations, lightweighting while maintaining high efficiency becomes even more important.”

But that might be a far off future.

Wood Mackenzie's Aaron Barr says, “The design cycle for offshore turbines is very long, due to the massive scale of the technology, significant supply chain investment, and high risk that dictates extensive validation periods. The DOE-funded research is unlikely to be applied commercially on the next generation of offshore wind turbines until 2030 or later.”

Nevertheless, the continued development of the direct-drive mechanisms is certain to find applications in other markets. And we should keep a close eye on their development as energy efficiency becomes ever more important.

Until next time,

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Luke Burgess

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As an editor at Energy and Capital, Luke’s analysis and market research reach hundreds of thousands of investors every day. Luke is also a contributing editor of Angel Publishing’s Bubble and Bust Report newsletter. There, he helps investors in leveraging the future supply-demand imbalance that he believes could be key to a cyclical upswing in the hard asset markets. For more on Luke, go to his editor’s page.

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