Offshore wind could become the backbone of the UK’s energy mix in little more than a decade, with pioneering technology at its heart.
In the last 12-18 months I’ve highlighted numerous examples of technology that could revolutionise aspects of the offshore wind energy industry, from above-water and underwater drones to parachute-shaped kites.
Predicting which of many cost-saving technologies might come to the fore first isn’t straightforward – there are a lot of them – but scientists at the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult have taken a stab at doing just that.
Based on the catapult’s current research, it has made predictions about what kind of technology the offshore windfarm of the future might be using in 2030, 2040 and 2050. The ORE Catapult’s projections are based on research currently taking place in the UK.
Trends already highlighted by OWJ that we’re likely to see growing over the next two to three decades include robots and drones, with automated motherships carrying armies of droids that will carry out maintenance and basic repairs less expensively than before.
Turbines will become bigger, but challenges faced by scale and weight will mean more innovative designs will come to the fore, including multi-rotor designs and vertical axis turbines.
Issues faced by intermittency will also be a thing of the past, with energy storage technology maturing in around 12 years to become a key part of the UK’s energy mix – potentially responsible for meeting a third of the UK’s electricity demand.
So, using some of the most innovative technologies under development as examples, how will the windfarm of the future develop?
The ORE Catapult predicts that by 2030, floating windfarms will become the norm, with significantly larger turbines generating more than 15 MW of energy, compared to the 7-8 MW drivetrains today. Blades themselves will be larger, but novel materials will reduce the cost of the repairs and maintenance. ACT Blade, in Edinburgh, is leading in this field, using techniques borrowed from creating ultra-efficient sails from racing yachts to engineer textile blades.
Drones and AI-driven monitoring systems will be commonplace, with Glasgow-based Wideblue’s internal blade inspection system, autonomous drones from Perceptual Robotics, Bristol, and Modus Seabed Intervention’s automated underwater vehicle (AUV) and docking station meaning basic subsea repairs and maintenance can be carried out without human intervention. Rovco’s AI-driven 3D vision-based underwater survey solution is another example.
But drones won’t be the only robots swarming over offshore turbines. Soon to be tested on real turbines at ORE Catapult’s testing facilities in Blyth, Bladebug is the name of a London-based SME and its innovative blade crawler. This robotic crawler could significantly reduce the cost and risk of blade maintenance activities – and can operate even when the wind is too strong for flying drones.
In the meantime, storage solutions being developed in the UK, such as Statoil’s BatWind technology will end intermittency issues and ensure every ounce of renewable energy harnessed from the wind is used.
By 2040, turbines will be accompanied by new technology. There will be an extensive roll-out of floating kite power generators, such as that being developed by Kite Power Systems Ltd in Glasgow, which uses a wing as a kite to harness power in a wider swept area than turbines can. Because the kites are lightweight, the systems use less material than conventional wind technology so produce energy at a lower cost.
Turbines will take on a new look, with designs moving from the single-rotor designs we see today to arrays of multiple rotors on a single structure, drastically reducing installation and maintenance costs – as well as generating up to 20 MW using small 500 kW turbines.
And those turbines will benefit from even cheaper generators. Expensive rare-earth magnets will be replaced by cheap, abundantly available ferrite magnets thanks to an innovative generator developed by Essex’s GreenSpur Renewables.
Wind turbines will continue to grow in size, with 200 m blades being the norm in single-rotor designs. Because of their size, these blades will use an entirely new construction method, with flexible blade structures used to reduce the likelihood of breakage. Secondary rotors could start to be used on the tip of blades – where because of their high speed they will generate even more power from every gust.
Vertical axis turbines, still in their infancy, will address the challenges current designs pose in weight, with larger traditional blades becoming less feasible on a tower structure. These vertical axis blades will have numerous other benefits, such as being able to generate power no matter which direction the wind is blowing in.
This technology will benefit from the MagLev technology currently used for metro trains in Japan. Used in tandem with vertical axis turbines, this will reduce the friction between the turbine and the blade to zero, allowing greater yield by allowing generation with even less wind.
The rise of the robots will continue with the introduction of the mothership, fully autonomous vessels that can transfer crew to turbines as well as more advanced robots and drones, acting both as a charging station and data hub.
This article was published on Tuesday February 27 in the Offshore Wind Journal. Author of the article is David Foxwell.