Hywind's turbines, which measure 175 meters from sea level to the top of their blades are fixed to the seabed with chains, and can work at depths of up to 800 meters. Photo: Statoil

The world’s first commercial floating wind farm has started to produce power in Scotland – and, according to its manufacturers, the technology could have significant implications for future energy production in Asia. Japan in particular is predicted to be a big beneficiary.

Hywind Scotland, developed by Norway-based energy multinational Statoil, is currently a pilot 30-megawatt project comprising five turbines that sit in the Buchan Deep, 20 kilometers off the coast of the United Kingdom’s (UK) Aberdeenshire in the Atlantic Ocean.

After the wind farm successfully began producing power in September, and then delivered electricity to the Scottish power grid in October, Statoil says another four turbines will be added to Hywind. That will then allow it to generate enough energy to power 20,000 households.

The US$250 million project, financed via the UK government’s renewable energy plan and majority-owned by Statoil (which has a 75% stake; Abu Dhabi energy firm Masdar has the remaining 25%), follows six years of testing.

Hywind’s turbines sit at a water depth of 95-120 meters in an area that has an average wind speed of 10 meters per second. Measuring 175 meters from sea level to the top of their blades, they are fixed to the seabed with chains and can work at water depths of up to 800 meters.

Statoil says the technology will only get cheaper after this first successful commercial application.

“With fixed turbines, offshore wind is optimal for 20-50 meters water depth,” Elin Isaksen, Statoil’s spokesperson for Hywind told Asia Times. “But globally, close to 80% of the resource potential for offshore wind is in deep waters where bottom-fixed offshore wind is not an option.”

“Globally, close to 80% of the resource potential for offshore wind is in deep waters where bottom-fixed offshore wind is not an option.” – Statoil spokespersion

Isaksen says the floating turbines will open up previously out-of-bounds parts of the ocean, including the US west coast and Hawaii, the west coast of India, the South China Sea and most of coastal Japan.

“Japan’s shift away from nuclear power has driven the need for new and reliable energy supplies,” says Isaksen. “It has few sites available for bottom-fixed wind turbines since its waters are too deep, but by utilizing this floating technology, it could have 3.5 gigawatts (GW) installed by 2030.”

To put this in perspective, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that caused 11 nuclear reactors to be taken offline resulted in a loss of 9.7 GWs to Japan’s power grid.

According to Isaksen, fixed offshore wind already has a strong foothold in Europe’s shallow coastal waters and currently provides 10 GWs of installed capacity. Statoil estimates floating turbines give wind the potential to produce more than 100 GW globally by 2030.

There are something like 40 other floating turbine projects currently under testing worldwide, including the so-called “Fukushima Forward” project that is currently being installed at a site 20km off Japan’s North East mainland. It includes what the country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry says are the world’s largest floating turbines plus an adjoining seaborne electricity substation.

Criticism of the technology, meanwhile, has centered on high installation costs, risks from typhoons and the impacts such projects have on seabirds.