A peek at the industry from a shipping engineer’s perspective

I was hosted by friends of my family in the Amsterdam area, including Boudewijn van der Garden, who works for Jumbo Shipping, a heavy-lift shipping company, as the Regional Commercial Manager specialising in renewables, specifically offshore wind. This provided me an interesting glimpse behind the scenes of wind energy.

The structures that support today’s largest offshore wind turbines are massive, weighing hundreds of tonnes. Only ten vessels in the world can lift and carry these structures, and Jumbo owns six of them. Wind farms can be installed on floating platforms in deep water, or on piles in shallow water, to about 35m maximum depth. In the latter case, there are two main supporting structures for the towers: a “monopile” that’s embedded in the sea floor, projecting about five metres above the surface, and the “transition piece” (TP) that’s fitted onto the monopile. The modestly-named TP supports the tower and its turbine, provides access for workers, and houses the electrical cables to transmit the power. The tower holding the turbine and blades is then mounted to the TP. The design and installation of these structures has to be exact to withstand the open sea conditions. 

This video shows the TPs (the big yellow towers) being shipped and installed at sea:

Most of the offshore wind installations Jumbo is servicing lately are in the North Sea. Indeed, as I learned in my previous foray into the renewable energy landscape in the UK, the country is a world leader in offshore wind installation. There is also a lot of interest in Taiwan, and Jumbo recently supplied the country’s first wind park with TPs for its 20 towers, which will generate 128MW once fully built and commissioned. Each TP for this project was 8m diameter x 30m high and had a weight of 462 tonnes, each supporting a tower with 6MW turbine. Just six TPs fit in one ship, so the expense (and emissions of course) of this long distance shipping is considerable. However, until there are more local manufacturers of the infrastructure, there’s no way around it. 

Of course, there are many other places in the world with favorable conditions and wind strength for offshore energy generation, as shown in the map below. 

Global wind map – see interactive version here: https://www.globalwindatlas.info

The GE Haliade X, made in France, is the world’s largest wind turbine at 12MW, generating twice as much power as the turbines installed in the Taiwan project. Each tower stands 260m above the surface and the blades have a diameter of 220m! As stated by GE: “One Haliade-X 12 MW turbine can generate up to 67 GWh of gross annual energy production, providing enough clean energy to power 16,000 European households and save up to 42,000 metric tons of CO2, which is the equivalent of the emissions generated by 9,000 vehicles in one year.” Jumbo provided the delivery of the first “nacells” (the turbine hubs) for testing, as shown below. 

Haliade X nacell being unloaded

So, what about Canada? That map seems to show a lot of dark red off the north coast of BC, Haida Gwaii and the maritimes. Although Canada has a healthy and growing onshore wind market, offshore has yet to take off. Like geothermal energy, offshore wind is an as yet untapped resource in Canada. According to the site 4Coffshore, there are 31 offshore projects in various stages of investigation and planning, but so far none have been approved or built. The company Naikun Wind Energy announced an agreement to develop a wind farm in Hecate Strait was imminent in the coming weeks in August 2019 but the website has no further updates at this time. 

Unsubsidized wind energy has been the lowest cost option for new electricity supply for some time. In a study just released (as summarized by Clean Technica), both solar and wind are now cost-competitive, without subsidies, with existing gas and nuclear power. This is a huge milestone, considering that the fossil energy industry is still heavily subsidized. 

Anti-environment governments like Ontario’s Doug Ford can fight renewable energy on an ideological basis – I guess, assuming their ideology involves a dystopian scorched earth – but they can no longer claim it’s based on fiscal responsibility. There are huge opportunities for our economy, and jobs for engineers like Boudewijn, waiting to be developed. The question remains if our politicians have the wherewithal to catch this wave, or flounder in denial.

I asked Boudewijn, from his insider’s perspective, what’s necessary to expand the offshore wind industry. “Be transparent on the impact, both pros and cons,” he said, including understanding and communicating about the impacts on wildlife. At the same time, we agreed the impacts on birds are often overstated, while studies show the underwater structures of wind farms can create artificial reef conditions. He also said politicians need to be “more decisive to go ahead”, and avoid unnecessary delay.

Arkona wind farm in operation in the North Sea (source: Wikimedia Commons)