Twenty-foot waves battered the Lisa A on the night of Sept. 16 in the Irish Sea, damaging two of the turbine-installation platform’s undersea legs and forcing the crew to evacuate as it listed to 30 degrees.
The barge has been out of service ever since, halting work on E.ON AG’s Robin Rigg wind farm for seven of the past eight months because only one short-term replacement could be found.
Equipment shortages and rising costs are stalling as much as $120 billion of offshore projects the European Union and other governments are counting on to reduce the use of fossil fuels and combat global warming. Royal Dutch Shell Plc on May 1 said it planned to sell its 33 percent stake in the London Array, the world’s biggest sea-based wind park.
“It’s been more difficult to build offshore projects than everyone thought,” said Goeran Lundgren, head of Nordic power generation at Stockholm-based Vattenfall AB, which has put a 640- megawatt wind farm in the Baltic Sea on hold. “I don’t think we’ll see any large-scale offshore parks until we’ve taken a few big development steps.”
London Array, proposed by Shell, E.ON and Dong Energy A/S in 2001, would be a collection of as many as 341 turbines 12 miles off the southeast coast of Britain. It would generate 1,000 megawatts of power, enough to supply a quarter of London’s homes.
Because they use wind – not coal, oil or natural gas – to generate electricity, such projects produce no carbon dioxide, the gas blamed for global warming. Building offshore also increases production by providing access to more consistent winds. The EU has set a goal of producing 4 percent of the region’s electricity from sea-based installations by 2020.
“Offshore wind is going to be a hugely important part of our renewable energy policy,” U.K. Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks said in an interview.
Shell’s decision to sell its stake in London Array shows how difficult it will be to meet those goals. After the announcement on May 1, Skaerbaek, Denmark-based Dong Energy and Dusseldorf- based E.ON, Germany’s biggest utility, said they may reduce the size of the project.
“Rising costs of materials,” including steel and turbines “are the reasons for reassessment of our position,” said Shell spokeswoman Eurwen Thomas.
The price of offshore turbines rose 48 percent to 2.23 million euros ($3.45 million) per megawatt in the past three years, according to BTM Consult APS, a Danish wind power consultant. By comparison, land-based rotors cost 1.38 million euros per megawatt after rising 74 percent in the same period.
Vestas Wind Systems A/S of Randers, Denmark, and General Electric Co. of Fairfield, Connecticut, the world’s biggest turbine makers, are focusing on onshore equipment because it’s more profitable and easier to install.
Vestas hasn’t sold a sea-based turbine since December 2006. The company suspended sales of its 3-megawatt V90 offshore model after it had to replace faulty gearboxes at three wind parks. It began offering the model again this month.
Offshore “is a niche,” said Chief Executive Officer Ditlev Engel. “Looking ahead, it will basically be onshore.”
Projects also are being held up by a shortage of construction vessels and the high-voltage cables needed to link wind parks to the electricity grid, according to Ben Warren, director of renewable energy at Ernst & Young LLP.
Sea-based wind farms use rotors that are as much as 100 meters (328 feet) in diameter, perched atop towers rammed into the seabed. Installation requires platforms equipped with cranes and stabilizing legs.
There are only four self-powered turbine-installation vessels in the world, according to Lloyds Register Fairplay, a shipping data provider.
E.ON hired a replacement for Lisa A last December but had to stop work at Robin Rigg again after a month, when the ship moved on to another job. The utility plans to restart construction on the 180-megawatt project this month, after Lisa A is repaired.
The offshore power industry had counted on getting vessels and workers from the North Sea oil and gas industry as those fields become depleted, Warren said. Instead, a five-year oil rally has drawn resources to Brazil, West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico, where production is more profitable.
“The volume of the manufacturing challenge is pretty enormous,” said Tom Murley, who manages HgCapital’s 300 million- euro Renewable Power Fund. He hasn’t invested in offshore wind because of concerns about costs and reliability.
Emerging Energy Research, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consulting firm, estimates utilities worldwide will build as much as 40,000 megawatts of offshore wind parks by 2020 at a cost of $120 billion. About 1,100 megawatts had been installed at the end of last year.
The biggest sea-based project currently operating is Dong’s 166-megawatt Nysted wind farm, built five years ago off the Danish island of Lolland.
Utilities will hesitate to build large-scale offshore projects until supplies of material and equipment have stabilized, said Warren at Ernst & Young.
“At the end of the day, nobody wants a 4 billion-euro white elephant in the middle of the sea,” he said.
By Lars Paulsson and Paul Dobson
14 May 2008
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