Failure of government support has left the deepwater sector’s battling to industrialize, but commercialization will arrive with the offshore wind build-out’s next wave – if developers are ‘proactive’, BlueFloat Energy CEO Carlos Martin Rivals tells Darius Snieckus
News that a pioneering gigascale floating wind development off Taiwan had been anointed with environmental impact assessment (EIA) approval made few headlines even in the energy industry trade press, understandably more occupied in recent weeks with coverage of an international offshore wind business struggling in the grips of an inflation-fueled cost crisis that has led to auctions no-shows and high-profile project cancellations.
But the 1GW Winds of September, being developed by BlueFloat Energy – and currently the front-runner to be the Southeast Asian nation’s first-ever floating array, strikes a light for a sector in the throes of industrialization for range of reasons.
At the regional level, the project by its scale alone lends clear credence to the potential of Asia-Pacific to be home to over 250GW of deepwater arrays by mid-century as some have forecast. And for Taiwan, which has a target of 15GW of offshore wind power flowing to grid by 2035 despite not having enough shallow-water sites off its coasts for this size of deployment, it legitimizes floating technology’s role in this objective.
Most of all though, for the project to have gone from spark of conception to EIA in under 18 months – a record – points to the speed at which floating wind could begin to step into its long-promised role as a major contributor to offshore wind’s expansion in Asia-Pacific – and worldwide.
“[ Winds of September ] is potentially the first floating wind project to be executed in Taiwan and will be one of the first in Asia-Pacific. We proposed this project with a fundamental belief that, just like in many other geographies, floating wind will be needed to meet many nation’s long-term objectives for offshore wind,” says BlueFloat Energy CEO Carlos Martin Rivals.
WINDS OF CHANGE: BlueFloat Energy's 1GW Winds of September, to be built 25km off north-western Taiwan in 65-95m of water, could be the country's first floating wind array (IMAGE: BlueFloat Energy)
“The fact that we got [the project’s] EIA [panel review] approved in record time… is a source of pride as it reflects the good work down by all our team locally and globally. As the review process [being open and public] is really independent… and focused on understanding and evaluating how the proven floating technology fits in Taiwanese waters and the local ecosystem, it is also a consequence of strong stakeholder engagement, including government and local policy practitioners. That was paramount.”
Scoped to be built in 65-95 meters (210-310ft) of water 25km (15 miles) off the northern city of Hsinchu, Winds of September is being bid into Taiwan’s upcoming round 3.3 auction as a 90-180MW ‘demonstrator’ development to start – a fact that could be key for a country with around a third of its planned build-out in the next decade in deepwater, as well as for a floating wind sector fighting its way to move from pilot projects toward utility-scale arrays.
“Taiwan’s backing of these sorts of ‘stepping stone’ projects with feed in tariffs [as it did earlier bottom-fixed developments] is a good approach that other Asia-Pacific markets could follow because demonstrators that can be implemented fast can show a way forward for the industry toward commercialization,” says Rivals.
“This size of project is a very positive one for the industry because it gives opportunities around economies of scale, industrialization potential and so on. It is a good middle ground [after the smaller 25-100MW pilot projects now in the water] before jumping to the commercial phase for the sector.”
Floating wind units also answer a challenge common to Taiwan and other Asia-Pacific plays: tricky seafloor conditions. “Taiwan has very soft soil seabed that can suffer from liquefaction in certain specific areas. So, in practical terms, bottom-fixed structures are out of their depth here as they have to [hammer down] much deeper [than in some other regions] to reach solid bedrock. Floating solves this.”
Key to making the leap to commercialization – as floating wind developers know only too well from their travails in markets in Europe and the US as well as Asia – is development of a supply chain that can handle the demands of optimized serial manufacture and installation of hundreds of moored wind units. It is a reality Taipei is alive to, Rival believes.
'This size of project is a good middle ground [after the 25-100MW pilots now in the water] before jumping to the commercial phase for the sector.'Carlos Martin Rivals
“There is the expectation that the government will show greater flexibility on [Taiwanese supply chain use] with floating compared to fixed, at least definitely for these demonstrators, to find a balance between local content and speed of development,” he says.
“Asia-Pacific has a strong advantage in general in this respect because there are vast [established networks of] fabrication facilities in the region [from work in the offshore oil and maritime sectors]. Taiwan is making great progress in developing its manufacturing capabilities [for offshore and floating wind].”
BlueFloat Energy, which has amassed a project portfolio of some 33GW, is one of a new generation of offshore wind developers looking at the sector “always locally and globally”, says Rivals, to extract lessons and best practice as it pushes ahead with developments in its two “platform” markets: Asia-Pacific – Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand and Europe – the UK, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, while keeping an eye on emerging plays in the Americas.
'Leveraging regional synergies'
“Having that established presence in these two continents is something that we see as very positive because it allows us to leverage the synergies where we can benefit from a regional perspective,” he says.
“Together this is a sizable business and we are very much engaged with the supply chain at a regional level to see where the best fabrication sites are and how to leverage the capabilities of different countries for an integrated supply chain strategy that can benefit us in these different geographies.”
This approach keeps Rivals' hand steady on the BlueFloat Energy tiller too, it would appear, during a period in floating wind history when global 2030 development forecasts are being downgraded, from 14-16GW only a few years ago to as low 1-2GW – Aegir Insights' most recent modelling for installed capacity by decade’s-end.
“We seem to be moving from a phase where everything seemed to be good news for floating wind, to one where uncertainties are mounting. This is, in some ways, understandable and indeed has happened in the past – we've seen it happening in solar, wind, marine, all these cycles,” he says.
“But [indeed] it is true that it reflects that some jurisdictions haven't delivered on their commitments to approve legislation and support schemes for support floating.”
“Still the industry shouldn’t get too obsessed about this date, 2030,” Rivals adds. “Whether it is in the water by then – or 2032 – is irrelevant, to me. What is, is that we are coming to a tipping point for floating wind where the number of gigawatts of floating wind that are being installed is going to rise very quickly and significantly.”
He continues: “First megaprojects will start rolling in the next few years; tenders are being submitted and will be awarded in several markets; supply chains are taking shape around the world; in the UK, [currently the world’s largest floating wind market with 80MW turning], the sector will be ready for execution [of first flagship utility-scale projects] before the end of the decade.
“The growth is coming.... And with it we will see that cost reduction will happen as capacity increases.”
However, Rivals cautions, the market will not materialize of its own accord. “We mustn’t just wait and see if this happens. We must be proactive. Developing and consenting projects, developing supply chain plans with an international perspective, developing grid infrastructure, so we can deliver these first projects both in terms of volume as well as cost.”
There remains the inconvenient truth that many European governments are today substantially expanding fixed-bottom offshore wind auctions, creating far cheaper acreage than can be found in prospective floating wind zones around the North Sea. And in the nascent US play, upcoming leases in the Central Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico by federal authorities has quietly been shifted closer to shore, shelving deepwater areas for the time being.
Developer strategy will be key for this reason, says Rivals. “There will be those [floating wind] players at the top of the market that will wait and see and maybe join the game once capacity has increased and costs start going down” and trailblazers “who want to be part of that game and want to be very much involved in making it happen”, adding” “BlueFloat [Energy intends to] definitely part of this [second group].”
“Just as we perhaps didn’t give too much credit to the exuberance about floating a couple years ago [when forecasts that 16GW would be installed by 2030 were in common industrial parlance], nor do we get too stressed by the bad news today, which I think is being overplayed to a large extent.
“Experience is the best recipe for success. And for those who have a strong floating wind team will benefit from the ‘second wave’ growth in the offshore wind industry when it comes – which will be sooner than many think, I believe, as main [supply chain] bottlenecks are resolved, as inflation stabilizes and interest rates begin to fall. We are comfortable sticking with our strategy.”
This article was first published in Aegir Insights' intelligence newsletter, Beaufort.
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