The 45th President of the United States has come and gone, and so has his unfulfilled pledge to save the US coal industry. However, like an angry ghost his legacy still haunts the halls of the US Department of Energy, killing off coal jobs with otherworldly precision. In the latest development, the Energy Department is shepherding a new floating offshore wind turbine collaboration between GE and the naval engineering firm Glosten, with the aim of pushing the nation’s offshore wind capacity to almost double its current electricity demand.
So Much For Saving All Your Coal Jobs
The appeal of saving coal jobs was never about saving coal jobs. It was about leveraging race for political purposes on the coattails of an industry notorious for its past exploitation of racial tension among coal miners, and for its increasing exclusion of Black miners in more recent times.
That’s all water under the bridge now. The campaign promises of 2016 were so much dust in the wind halfway through his tenure, when the former POTUS excluded coal from his 2019 State of the Union address. The omission wouldn’t have attracted much media attention, but in the same speech he touted natural gas, which has been pushing coal out of the US generation market in recent years. He also gave a shoutout to oil, which has pried coal loose from maritime use as well.
There never was anything #45 could do about coal jobs, considering that the march of mechanization had already stripped tens of thousands of coal jobs all throughout the 20th century, as an ever-increasing array of machines replaced hand labor. Mountaintop coal removal swooped in during the 21st century to mop up the rest.
Floating Offshore Wind Turbines Float Into The Picture
For all the talk about clean coal, the domestic thermal coal workforce was already cut off at the knees by 2016, and the Trump administration dealt blow after blow with a series of projects aimed at boosting the domestic wind industry along with other renewables.
The idea of floating turbines on the water instead of fixing them into the sea bed is a relatively new one, but the floating turbine supply chain was already revving up by the time Trump took office. Nations other than the US were already diving into the new floating offshore wind market, lured by the appeal of stronger winds and the ability to locate offshore wind farms in deep waters, farther offshore and out of sight from shoreline tourist spots and other coastal communities.
Among several projects aimed at vaulting the US from laggard to leader during the Trump administration, the Energy Department launched the ATLANTIS project, for “Aerodynamic Turbines Lighter and Afloat with Nautical Technologies and Integrated Servo-control.”
That thing about lighter-and-afloat is a carbon-reducing twofer. The floating element, as discussed above, provides more opportunities to place more wind turbines along the massive US coastlines. The lighter element is aimed at using less material and driving down costs.
How Many Floating Offshore Wind Turbines Does It Take To Screw The Domestic Coal Industry?
ATLANTIS launched in August of 2018, when the Energy Department’s cutting edge ARPA-E funding office kicked off 12 projects aimed at this…
“ATLANTIS seeks to design radically new FOWTs [Floating Offshore Wind Turbines] by maximizing their rotor-area-to-total-weight ratio while maintaining or ideally increasing turbine generation efficiency; build a new generation of computer tools to facilitate FOWT design; and collect real data from full and lab-scale experiments to validate the FOWT designs and computer tools.”
…because of this:
“Accessible U.S. offshore wind is estimated at more than 25 quads per year (a quad is one quadrillion BTUs, equivalent to 45 million tons of coal, 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 170 million barrels of crude oil). Nearly 60% of that wind energy—the equivalent of the entire U.S. annual electricity consumption—blows across waters more than 200 feet deep, an area that cannot be economically accessed today.”
Doing that math, that was about 20 months after Trump took office, and his administration was already calculating how much coal could be replaced by accessing more offshore wind power.
Two Fossil Energy Giants Match Wits On Floating Turbines
That brings us to GE and Glosten, two legacy firms with deep roots in the fossil energy industry. As with many forward-thinking fossil stakeholders, the two companies have been applying their expertise to the renewable energy field and the payoff is already beginning to emerge.
GE, for example, has nailed down frontrunner status for its Haliade X 12 megawatt offshore wind turbine (or 13 megawatts as the case may be).
Meanwhile, Glosten has been working on its Pelastar tethering system for floating offshore wind turbines since 2006. In 2017 Glosten also nailed down an offshore wind partnership deal with the firm GICON aimed at optimizing the so-named Tension Leg Platform (TLP) foundation designs for floating offshore wind turbines, with the goal of beating other floating wind turbines on cost.
GE was awarded one of the 12 ARPA-E projects selected in 2018, and the Energy Department re-upped its commitment in 2020. The company has been tasked with shrinking the size of the platforms needed to stabilize floating offshore wind turbines. The devil is in the details, but the basic idea is to have all parts of a floating wind turbine project coordinate on the design of control systems.
“GE Global Research and Glosten will design a new FOWT based on the 12 MW (megawatt) Haliade-X rotor and a lightweight three-legged acutated tension-leg platform,” ARPA-E explained. “Applying a CCD methodology, the team will use advanced control algorithms to operate the turbine and concurrently design the integrated structure of the FOWT. The proposed turbine designs will have the potential to reduce the mass of the system by more than 35% compared with installed FOWT designs.”
So, How’s It Going With Those Floating Offshore Wind Turbines?
Earlier this week GE updated its progress on the ARPA-E offshore wind project, for which the funding now totals a cool $4 million.
Describing the challenge of putting a turbine more than 850 feet tall on the smallest platform possible, GE’s Principal Investigator for the project Rogier Blom said that “designing a floating turbine is like putting a bus on a tall pole, making it float and then stabilizing it while it interacts with wind and waves. Doing this well is both a design and controls challenge.”
More specifically, the GE-Glosten mashup is expected to reduce the mass of towers and platforms for typical floating wind turbines by 35%.
The timing is right for progress on floating offshore wind turbines in US waters. After years of delay, the offshore wind genie is finally out of the bottle, just in time to take advantage of GE’s Haliade X and other new, more powerful wind turbines.
Hundreds of fixed platform wind turbines are already in the US wind industry pipeline for the relatively shallow waters of the Atlantic coast. The cost-cutting effort on floating wind turbines will open up additional opportunities for Atlantic states while also opening up large swaths of the Pacific coast for the first time.
In a sign of things to come, coal workers are still lobbying the Biden administration to carve out a bit of space for coal jobs in the metallurgical sector as well as carbon capture technology, but the United Mine Workers of America is already pivoting to a future in which former coal communities can find new life in the renewable energy sector.
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Image: Floating offshore wind turbines courtesy of Glosten via GE.