How Ocean Buoys Enable Cost-Effective and Environmentally-Sound Wind Energy

Duncan Mactavish

Offshore wind energy is increasingly seen as a viable alternative energy source around the world. In late 2020, the EU Commission announced a new strategy that proposed significantly expanding Europe’s offshore wind capacity from 12 GW to at least 60 GW by 2030 — and further to 300 GW by 2050. Floating wind and solar will complement the asked-for investment package of nearly €800 billion (around $1 trillion) by 2050.  

Wind energy offers a lot of potential as a green energy source — but the logistics of establishing and maintaining offshore wind farms are challenging. A new development, floating wind farms, is promising, but the widespread adoption of floating offshore wind is still a long way off from becoming mainstream. Here’s what the future of offshore wind energy looks like — and how ocean buoys can help the EU and others meet their bold green energy goals by 2050. 

The promise of offshore wind energy

Wind energy is a great renewable energy option — and offshore wind farms offer more potential benefits than those on land. 

“What separates offshore from onshore is the wind potential. Wind is typically much stronger over bodies of water than over land, resulting in increased power potential and efficiency,” explains one report from Stanford University. “One can also argue that as populations rise and land becomes more and more scarce, the placement of these enormous wind farms over the open ocean and out of the way has enormous value.” 

Offshore wind farms are typically located within 30 km of the shore; turbines can’t be built in depths greater than 40m, which limits how far out a wind farm can be based. Nevertheless, offshore wind farms are less disruptive than their onshore counterparts. A common complaint among civilians is that turbines can be noisy. No one is losing sleep from turbines located 30 km off the coast. 

Technology like the Sofar Ocean Spotter and its connected sensor platform Smart Mooring allows offshore wind farms to be established without disrupting critical marine ecosystems — something the US Department of Energy has prioritized with more than $7 million in funding. The Spotter and Smart Mooring can play a role in site selection and design, expanding the possible geographic area that marine wind companies can assess for wind farm suitability. Once the wind farm is built, there’s no evidence to suggest that turbines harm marine ecosystems in any way. 

In addition to traditional wind farms, new developments in floating wind energy make this particular sector of renewable energy even more appealing. The adoption of floating wind farms will rely heavily on technology like the Spotter and Smart Mooring: floating structures are particularly subject to wind and wave-induced motion, and therefore require a perfect understanding of the local wavefield and its potential impact on the extreme motion of turbines during storm events, for instance. Thanks to their affordability and size, Spotters can be set up all around the permit area to fully perform hyper-local metocean studies to capture site specific wave wind and current conditions.

Floating wind turbines can be built in deeper water, expanding the viable area for wind energy and increasing access to areas with higher, steadier marine wind. Despite the fact that this is a new technology, it’s predicted to rapidly become more affordable

What are the challenges of wind energy?

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of challenges to establishing offshore wind farms. From the design and manufacture to the maintenance and operation of offshore turbines, the elements can make this source of energy remarkably complicated. Corrosion, erosion, lightning strikes, and biofouling are just a few of the challenges to maintaining the operational viability of offshore wind farms. 

Floating offshore wind is expected to overcome a number of the obstacles facing traditional offshore wind turbines. A floating platform is less susceptible to biofouling, corrosion, and erosion, as less of the turbine structure is submerged in seawater. For floating wind to become more prevalent, companies will need to invest in real-time monitoring of wave conditions — something that the Spotter and Smart Mooring can achieve. 

“We know that floating wind is technically feasible,” Remi Eriksen Group President & CEO of DNV GL told Marine Executive.  “The challenge now is to move rapidly to commercial deployments. There is a wealth of expertise to call on. The know-how from bottom fixed offshore wind, the competences of shipyards, and of oil and gas contractors all broadly align with the technical, logistical and operational challenges of floating wind.” 

Until floating wind becomes further developed, companies like Sofar Ocean can play a role in expanding the portfolio of shallow and deepwater grounded wind farms. Ocean buoys are critical to expanding the adoption of new offshore wind energy. 

How can ocean buoys accelerate the adoption of wind energy? 

Perhaps the closest test case for using ocean buoys to set up offshore renewable energy can be found in offshore solar power. Swimsol, an Austrian-Maldivian company that is developing floating solar systems for marine environments, used the Spotter as part of their design process. 

Swimsol was looking for assistance in expanding their arrays of floating solar panels beyond shallower, tropical island-reef lagoons. By designing an array suited for deeper waters, Swimsol will be able to expand its renewable energy source worldwide. Swimsol used the Spotter buoy to collect data from greater depths, provide a more complete report on wind and wave conditions, and stream data in near real-time to the Swimsol office in Vienna. 

This successful use case proves the Spotter can provide similar insight to offshore wind energy companies seeking to expand their operations. Offshore wind energy – especially floating wind farms, as they become more developed – is likely to see a flood of funding in the next ten years. With tools like Sofar Ocean’s Spotter buoy, this investment can be put to good use in designing offshore arrays that minimize damage to the environment while increasing our use of green energy.

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