While wind farms remain landlocked in the U.S., the offshore variety is flourishing in Europe. And European players lead the world in related technologies, from rugged turbines designed to handle rough storms to giant crane ships that transport and assemble the huge windmills. Burntisland Fabrications (BiFab), a unit of oil services specialist JCE Group, has found a promising niche in the emerging offshore wind industry.
Adapting designs first used for oil rigs, BiFab builds large scaffolds—each resembling a submerged Eiffel Tower—to moor the wind turbines to the sea floor. The structures, consisting of relatively light but sturdy lattice work, require less steel than the single-tube designs typically used to support land turbines.
BiFab, based in Fife, Scotland, pioneered the design to prop up two 5-megawatt turbines—among the world's largest. Standing in some 120 feet of water, the duo help power a North Sea oil platform. Late last year, BiFab won bids to supply a new, lighter-weight design to support scores of turbines being built in the Irish and North Seas.
Energy from the Rolling Sea
"Think of waves as concentrated wind power," says Max Carcas, business development director at Pelamis Wave Power in Edinburgh, Scotland. As winds move across the oceans, they create ripples, which grow into swells. Because water is heavier than air, each wave can transfer some 800 times more energy than a similar volume of wind.
Pelamis is reaping this energy with a device, roughly the size of a subway train, that floats on the sea surface. As swells raise and lower its linked sections, the motion forces the powerful hydraulic pistons they contain to drive fluid through a generator. Since last September, three of these giant 750-kilowatt sea snakes have been floating off the coast of Portugal, feeding the grid with enough power to supply some 2,000 homes.
Even with credit tight, private capital is flowing to this emerging technology. Pelamis is backed by more than $120 million from GE Energy Financial Services (GE), Norsk Hydro (NHYDY), and others. On Feb. 11, the company announced a contract to build an improved, lighter design for German utility E.ON (EONGY).
Rough Waters Slow Progress in the U.S.
Even as it thrives in Europe, sea-based renewable energy is struggling to stay afloat in U.S. waters. Finavera Renewables planned to set up four giant "power buoys," which create energy by bobbing up and down, at offshore sites in California and Washington. But after a test unit sank in a storm, the Vancouver (B.C.) company quit the project, opting instead to build onshore wind farms. Meanwhile, at a site in New York City's East River, Verdant Power ran into snags with its first two underwater generators. They use three-bladed turbines to convert tidal flows into energy, but fast-moving waters snapped the blades. A new design has solved that problem, says Chairman and CEO Ronald Smith, but regulatory red tape has proved so costly that expanding into new markets remains a challenge. Then there's Ocean Power Technologies (OPTT) in Pennington, N.J. It just sold its first power-generating buoy to a utility, but not in the U.S. The order came from Iberdrola in Spain.