- Recent years have seen companies like GE, Vestas and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy announce plans to develop huge wind turbines.
- The sheer scale of these turbines may pose a number of mid-to-long term challenges for the sector.
- Huge turbines are being designed at a time when countries around the world are laying out plans to expand wind energy capacity.
In the not too distant future, waters 15 miles off Martha's Vineyard will be home to a potentially crucial part of America's energy future: the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind 1, a project that's been described as "the nation's first commercial-scale offshore wind farm."
Construction of Vineyard Wind 1 started last year, and the facility will use 13 MW versions of GE Renewable Energy's Haliade-X turbines. With a height of up to 260 meters (853 feet), a rotor diameter of 220 meters and 107-meter blades, the Haliade-X is part of a new generation of turbines set to be installed in the years ahead.
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Elsewhere, Danish firm Vestas is working on a 15-megawatt turbine that will have a rotor diameter of 236 meters and 115.5-meter blades while Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy is developing a turbine that incorporates 108-meter blades and a rotor diameter of 222 meters.
The reasons for these increases in size are clear. When it comes to height, the U.S. Department of Energy says the towers of turbines "are becoming taller to capture more energy, since winds generally increase as altitudes increase."
A bigger rotor diameter isn't just for show either, with the DOE noting that they "allow wind turbines to sweep more area, capture more wind, and produce more electricity."
It's much the same with blades. The DOE says longer blades can "capture more of the available wind than shorter blades—even in areas with relatively less wind."
Having huge turbines arrive on the market is all well and good, but their sheer scale may pose a number of mid-to-long term challenges for the sector, creating pinch points that could cause headaches.
Take installations. In February, research from Rystad Energy honed in on some of the possible issues related to the ships used to install offshore wind turbines out at sea.
Not counting China, it said wind turbines had seen what it called "a growth spurt in recent years, rising from an average of 3 megawatts (MW) in 2010 to 6.5 MW today."
This shift, it explained, was likely to be sustained. "Turbines larger than 8 MW accounted for just 3% of global installations between 2010 and 2021, but that percentage is forecast to surge to 53% by 2030."
The above data relates to offshore wind turbines only. According to the energy research and business intelligence firm, demand for vessels able to install larger offshore turbines is set to outstrip supply by the year 2024.
Operators, it said, "will have to invest in new vessels or upgrade existing ones to install the super-sized turbines that are expected to become the norm by the end of the decade, or the pace of offshore wind installations could slow down."
"When turbines were smaller, installation could be handled by the first-generation fleet of offshore wind vessels or converted jackups from the oil and gas industry," Martin Lysne, senior analyst for rigs and vessels at Rystad Energy, said in a statement at the time.
With operators continuing to favor bigger turbines, Lysne said a "new generation of purpose-built vessels" would be needed to satisfy demand.
These specialized vessels don't come cheap. U.S. firm Dominion Energy, for example, is heading up a consortium building the 472-foot Charybdis, which will cost around $500 million and be able to install current turbines and next-generation ones of 12 MW or greater. More vessels like the Charybdis will be needed in the future as turbines grow.
"Out of the current fleet of purpose-built vessels, only a handful of units can install 10 MW+ turbines, and none are currently able to install 14 MW+ turbines," according to Rystad Energy's analysis. "This will change towards 2025 as newbuilds start to be delivered and existing vessels get crane upgrades."
The ships that transport and install turbines will be important in the years ahead, but the ports where they dock are another area where investment and upgrades will likely be needed to cater to wind energy's growth.
In a comment sent to CNBC via email, Rystad Energy's Lysne described port infrastructure as being "very important" from a vessel perspective.
Going forward, it would appear that a lot of money will be needed. Last May, a report from industry body WindEurope said Europe's ports would have to invest 6.5 billion euros (around $7.07 billion) by 2030 in order "to support the expansion of offshore wind."
The report addressed the new reality of bigger turbines and the effect this could have in relation to ports and infrastructure. "Upgraded or entirely new facilities are needed to host larger turbines and a larger market," it said.
Ports, WindEurope said, would also need to "expand their land, reinforce quays, enhance their deep-sea harbours and carry out other civil works."
More recently, a report from the Global Wind Energy Council also reinforced the importance of ports.
"As offshore wind projects expand and commercial-scale floating wind projects proliferate, port upgrades will be critical for the future success of the industry," it said.
The Brussels-based organization said turbine sizes had "increased dramatically" over the past decade, noting that 15 MW turbines were available on the market.
"Experts now predict turbines with a 17 MW rating will be commonplace by 2035," it said, before adding that projects centered around floating offshore wind were being developed "at huge volumes."
These "floating projects" needed "significant quayside storage and assembly, necessitating more spacious facilities, on-land connective transport links within port areas and deeper-water ports."
"Several governments have identified port upgrades as vital to progressing offshore wind, from Taiwan to New York State."
In relation to ports, Rystad Energy's Lysne told CNBC that the U.S. — whose current offshore wind market is small — would "require more work as they do not have the same infrastructure in place as Europe."
Change on that front does appear to be forthcoming. At the beginning of March, BP and Equinor — two businesses better known as oil and gas producers — signed an agreement to convert the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal into an offshore wind port.
In an announcement, Equinor said the port would become "a cutting-edge staging facility for Equinor and bp's Empire Wind and Beacon Wind projects." The site, it claimed, would be "a go-to destination for future offshore wind projects in the region." Investment in infrastructure upgrades is expected to come in at $200 to $250 million.
The road ahead
All of the above feeds into the importance of infrastructure and logistics. Shashi Barla, who is global head of wind supply chain and technology at Wood Mackenzie, told CNBC that while companies had the technological capabilities, logistical challenges were proving to be "very difficult."
"It's not that it is something new … we have been talking about logistics challenges since day one of the industry," Barla said. "It's that ... we are kind of now, today, approaching the tipping point."
Around the world, major economies are announcing plans to ramp up wind energy capacity in a bid to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
While these goals are ambitious, it's clear they face a number of hurdles. Notwithstanding the issues related to turbine size, it will require a gargantuan effort to bring all these installations online. There's work to be done.
"Increasingly, a lack of facilitating infrastructure is seen as a major limiting factor in the wind industry's growth," the GWEC's report noted.
"In many countries," it added, "lack of infrastructure, such as grid and transmission networks, logistics highways and ports, is curtailing the expansion of wind power and stifling the very innovation needed to transform the energy system."
Alongside these issues, wind turbines' interaction with wildlife is likely to be another area of major debate and discussion going forward.
Only last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that a firm called ESI Energy Inc had "pled guilty to three counts of violating the MBTA," or Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
As the 21st century progresses, wind energy is set for a massive expansion, but the road ahead looks far from smooth. With the U.N. secretary-general recently warning the planet was "sleepwalking to climate catastrophe," the stakes couldn't be much higher.