GM Falls For Crazy Floating Wind Turbine Idea, May Not Be So Crazy After All

General Motors has been deploying its GM Ventures arm to kickstart next-generation clean tech that supports its stake in the global auto industry, and the latest venture is a doozy.  The firm has spearheaded a round of up to $10 million in funding for a new floating wind turbine system that looks like a giant wall of fidget spinners and acts like a giant energy-sucking sponge.

Floating Wind Turbines Are Coming Up In The World

For those of you new to the topic, floating wind turbines are a relatively new addition to the field of offshore wind power, which is itself a relatively new development in the renewable energy field.

Offshore wind farms made with conventional, fixed-platform turbines that perch upon monopiles are generally more expensive to build than their onshore counterparts, and the ongoing maritime labor shortage isn’t making things any easier. However, the potential for offshore scale-up helps to even the financial playing field, as does the proximity of large coastal population centers.

Also, wind turbines aren’t getting any smaller. Onshore wind farms need to size down according to bridges, tunnels, curvy roads and other obstacles between the turbine factory and the construction site. Offshore wind turbines don’t need any such considerations, depending on the availability of suitable port operations.

That leads to the question of why bother building floating offshore wind farms. Floating technology is generally more expensive than fixed-platform construction, but site selection is the big allure. More offshore sites are available to floating turbines, which require only an anchor to attach to the seabed. They can be located in deeper waters, where monopile construction is impractical.

One Platform, Many Floating Wind Turbines

As the floating wind supply chain matures, costs are coming down. Another cost-cutting maneuver is to co-locate more than one turbine on one platform, and that’s where Wind Catching Systems comes in.

“The technology is based on multi turbine technology and achieves its efficiency through maximizing energy production per floater, leading to more efficient acreage use and lower LCOE,” WCS explains.

Multi-turbine is an understatement. Going by the illustrations on the WCS website, a typical platform will host dozens of wind turbines. WCS calculates that its fully outfitted system can provide an output equivalent to five 15-megawatt wind turbines.

Considering that each of those 15-megawatt wind turbines would require a separate installation, you can see where the co-location idea is a potential money saver on construction costs.

WCS also anticipates that its designed-for-savings construction system will kick in. According to the company, its floating wind turbine system does not require any specialized vessels or cranes, and is based on established technology in the offshore oil and gas industry. Once the deck is floated, the rest of the installation involves standard elevator-based construction equipment.

The structure itself looks rather delicate, but WCS is banking on a design life of 50 years and a substantial savings in maintenance costs.

To gild the green lily, the co-location strategy means that a floating wind turbine farm would take up far less space than a conventional wind farm. WCS estimates that its floating wind turbines will take up 80% less acreage than a typical wind farm.

GM Hearts Floating Wind Turbines

Under the leadership of CEO Mary Barra, GM has already carved out a reputation for supporting grid-wide clean power projects that benefit entire communities. That’s a step beyond the standard approach of deploying renewable energy mainly or exclusively to benefit a company’s internal operations, but it’s an obvious fit for EV makers, who have a direct interest in fostering driver confidence in the nation’s public EV charging network.

The new floating wind turbine investment represents an opportunity for GM to expand its renewable energy footprint into new territory. As a renewable energy influencer, GM’s vote of confidence in WCS could also help attract more dollars into the floating offshore wind turbine area.

The new GM Ventures investment gives the company a foothold in WCS’s home turf of Norway and pairs it with the Norwegian investment firms Ferd and North Energy, as well as the construction firm Havfonn.

“As GM continues to move towards an all-electric future, it’s critical that we simultaneously drive the transition of the grid to low-carbon energy sources,” enthused GM Chief Sustainability Officer Kristen Siemen. “GM Ventures’ investment in offshore wind with Wind Catching Systems represents an opportunity to accelerate innovative technology to market, advancing a cleaner, more reliable, and resilient energy future.”

What Else Does GM Have Up Its Sleeve?

CleanTechnica has been following GM into the advanced energy storage space, but that appears to be just the tip of the clean tech iceberg for GM Ventures.

In the clean power and EV charging field, the current portfolio includes the turnkey renewable energy firm Empower Energies and the wireless EV charging firm Powermat Technologies.

Additive manufacturing also gets a shoutout through the company Seurat.

Circling back around to the energy storage area, we find an interest in next-generation fast-charging technology from Soelect, and a new “anode free” battery from SES.

Meanwhile, What Else Is Floating Around in the Offshore Wind Space?

If floating wind turbines still have some catching up to do in terms of cost-competitiveness, it probably won’t be for long. In another new development, the UK’s University of Dundee has called attention to a new floating wind turbine anchoring system that should keep costs heading on a downward spiral.

Although floating wind turbines have a site selection advantage over conventional turbines, the research team at Dundee points out that the current state of anchoring technology is a constraint.

“The depths at which floating turbines can be installed are limited by current anchor designs, which leave too great a footprint on the seabed and limit the number that can be installed in challenging maritime environments,” they explain.

The school was recently approached by the company Bruce Anchor Limited to improve upon the situation, and it appears they are on to something. The Bruce Anchor news is a little thin on detail, but last year the school described the work it’s doing on offshore anchoring with for the wave energy developer Corpower Ocean, and the company and Ternan Energy, which included this observation:

“The team’s new vibro installed anchors are being developed as an alternative to classic drag embedment anchors, which are not able to establish the required tensile capacity that allow a wave energy convertor to cope with the millions of waves it will face in its lifetime, and also to replace gravity base and large diameter plain pile anchor solutions which are both very expensive, structurally inefficient and require very large vessels to handle and deploy.”

Interesting! The team at Dundee notes that the process is less expensive and less disruptive to marine life than the “pipe pile” alternative anchor technology.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Mult-turbine floating wind turbine platform courtesy of Wind Catching Systems.


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