ONE TO ONE | ‘Only three or four floating wind designs will survive – it’s going to be brutal’

June 30, 2023
7 min read
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Dominique Roddier led development of the now-iconic WindFloat floating wind platform and now runs start-up Ocergy, which has flagship installations of a new-model design fast-approaching. He talks with Darius Snieckus about risky bets, industrialization’s hard realities, and why a ‘rapid consolidation’ of concepts is on the horizon

By Darius Snieckus

Dominique Roddier has the broad smile of an optimist, in an industry that has often in its short history had good reason to feel otherwise. Maybe it's because the CEO of floating wind start-up Ocergy, who while with US outfit Principle Power led development of the now-iconic WindFloat design from spark of conception through to prototyping, can easily remember back to a time when “you even had to prove that a turbine would spin at all, would make power, on a platform moored at sea”.

The innovative floating foundation concept he devised with his team – the majority of whom were offshore oil & gas engineers conscripted in from operators such as Shell and Exxon in Houston – emerged as a bright yellow, triangular steel semisubmersible, a scaled-down version of some of the massive deepwater production and drilling platforms operating in offshore hydrocarbon provinces around the world.

“There were not a lot of people in the industry [in 2006] when we were making first presentations to developers, not many at the conferences, but we were all very excited. And that in itself was exciting,” says Roddier. “But to be clear, when we were building the prototype [the WindFloat 1 off Portugal] in 2009, we had hard time even getting a turbine.”

WindFloat 1, a floating wind turbine foundation demonstration project that ran from 2011 to 2016, photographed at sea.

NEW WAVE: The WindFloat 1 floating wind prototype operating off Portugal in 2011. PHOTO: Darius Snieckus

Together with Equinor’s (then Statoil’s) Hywind 1, the first floating wind turbine to be switched-on, off Norway in 2009, WindFloat 1, powered up in 2011 fitted with a 2MW Vestas machine, pioneered the technology forward at a pace to the point where today there are almost 225MW of arrays turning – and a 300GW pipeline of projects jockeying toward construction off Europe, Asia and the US.

“From the start we had to prove we could build [the WindFloat design] very inexpensively,” says Roddier. “This was all pioneering work and depended on a lot of people believing and taking risk – including Antonio Vidigal [then CEO of EDP Innovation], who invested in the prototype]. He wrote the ‘first cheque’. So even with the prototype we had to show that LCOE [levelized cost of energy] is going to be very important.”

Lowering LCOE continues to be an existential quest in the floating wind fraternity. While the technology has succeeded in making swingeing cuts to its cost of energy per megawatt hour (MWh), bringing this figure to the level seen in fixed offshore wind, sub-€50/MWh, need the economies of scale created via industrialization, which has progressed less quickly than many in the industry had forecast only a few years ago.

Floating wind forecasts hit the doldrums

In 2017 many were anticipating as much as 16GW of floating wind would be operating by 2030 but expectations of late are being reined in, with Aegir Insights recently adjusting its end-of-the-decade build-out forecast downward again, to 4GW, and trimming its 2035 forecast to 26GW.

“There was overoptimism in many camps even a few years ago as to how much could get built in this timeframe. There were some of us [five years ago] that felt a lower installed capacity [than 14-16GW] by 2030 was likely.

“This is what made it so difficult to finance WindFloat, that long timeline, which really hasn’t changed that much. We are getting closer and there are many more projects happening but the challenges we face today – supply chain-building and so on – are still similar as we faced in 2010.”

'We are very good at engineering in this industry but not always so good at seeing the big picture, the real-life economics.'

Dominique Roddier, CEO, Ocergy
Dominique Roddier, CEO of Ocergy

Supplychain bottlenecks – problematic for the wider offshore wind industry but even more so for an emerging sector like floating with smaller, higher cost projects – and slow-moving port and coastal construction infrastructure development are the Scylla and Charybdis facing floating wind.

“Oil & gas standards were applied to everything [when the WindFloat 1 was built] because it was what we had and we had to be sure these first platforms didn’t fail,” says Roddier. “With the [Ocergy] OGCWind [concept] we had to start by saying, ‘This design has to provide an answer that makes sense [for industrial-scale floating wind power production] in LCOE terms in different water depths or in dollars per megawatt.

“Today the industry target [for the latter] is $1.2m/MW – and we, as an industry, are pretty far away from that – no one is truly ready for commercial, even if they say they are,” he adds.

“A different way of fabrication is what is needed. Light – because steel is expensive; fast – so lean manufacturing for cost-optimized serial production; and using numerous factories because it has to all be components produced and delivered – as appropriate – via a local or global supply chain, much like a car.

“Whether it is 15MW units for a 750MW wind project or 20MW [units] for a gigawatt one, it is still 50 units: that’s one per week, that’s the magic number,” reckons Roddier.

Modular fabrication-minded design

By focusing on modular fabrication and quick-cue assembly using mechanical connectors instead of welded joints, as well as low-cost installation, the Ocergy design – in the frame for several innovative projects including the 100MW Salmander floating wind-plus-hydrogen pilot being built off Scotland by Orsted, Simply Blue and Subsea7 – promises to generate at an LCOE as low as $50/MWh “from large wind farms with good wind resource and environmental site conditions”.

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MODULAR MINDSET: Ocergy's floating wind platform is designed for 'one-a-week' quayside assembly and float-out. (IMAGE: Ocergy)

“I didn’t really want to get back into pure-play floating wind after leaving Principle Power in 2019, but when we looked at the solution we were developing for a [next generation] data buoy [which became the Blue Oracle unit now collecting ‘macrozone’ metocean measurements in the French Mediterranean] we thought: 'There are technical challenges to adapting this for floating wind but none looked unsolvable'.

“We are very good at engineering in this industry but not always so good at seeing the big picture, the real-life economics.”

Voices calling for a focus on industrialization to speed floating wind into commercialization and those championing innovation have clashed in recent months, crossing swords as to whether getting first gigascale projects built with the 10MW turbines already tested at sea or having the largest turbines on the market, now approaching 20MW, should be looked to, to deliver market-accelerating LCOE reduction.

“The industrial instinct to get bigger and bigger is going to slow, maybe reverse a little, to see there is a ‘right size’ of turbine for floating, and it’s probably less than what people expect,” says Roddier.

'Innovation is imperative but...'

“Innovation is imperative but you need to as quickly as possible get to a proven concept and then you need to really start innovating to reduce and reduce the cost, so it is key that you bring in components perhaps not proven in floating wind though they have been in other industries,” he says.

TOW IN THE WATER: Ocergy's OCGData buoy under tow for installation in the French Mediterranean (FOTO: Ocergy)

“Cables, for instance, [are] used all over the world in huge suspension bridges; risers [are] stiff pipe, used for drilling 10km deep in the Gulf of Mexico – that is why we are adapting these technologies for our own use on our floater, to make it stronger and lighter than our competitors'. It makes sense.”

Barrelling forward with a wave of gigascale floating wind projects heading for construction in 2030-2031, from Scotland to South Korea and round the globe to the US West coast, a reckoning by ‘consolidation’ is coming, agrees Roddier.

“Those that get down to that cost competitive LCOE [with bottom-fixed wind and other forms of offshore energy] will take a huge part of the global market and those that don’t… there is going to be a lot of painful consolidation in the next few years."

“I think we can expect only three or four platform designs [to make it commercially] because there are only going to be three or four turbines used for floating wind. It is going to be brutal.” Nonetheless, Roddier is no less confident of the future of floating wind. “I am evermore bullish, in truth, whatever the challenges our industry is faced with. We have shown this spirit all along.”

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