This rendering depicts Hywind turbines bobbing in the water, with their tethers affixed to the floor below. Statoil

Energy company Statoil plans to get things running by the end of 2017.

Offshore wind farms are venturing out of the shallows.

Conventional turbines sit on a tower affixed to the ground, which makes it hard to reach the high winds out on the open seas. As of Monday, the Norwegian energy company Statoil has secured a lease to set up five 6-megawatt turbines 15 miles off the eastern coast of Scotland, The Guardian reports. Conventional wind turbines get prohibitively expensive at depths beyond 40 meters, but this pilot program will set up shop in 100 meters of North Sea brine.

How can they do that? By floating. Instead of building all the way up from the sea floor, the Hywind turbine sits on top of a steel tube that is weighed down with ballast. This is then secured to the sea floor with three anchored cables, while a stabilizing mechanism keeps the whole contraption from flailing all over the place. It all sounds a bit fantastic, but Statoil’s initial demonstration turbine has been capturing wind energy in deep waters since 2009.

What’s really exciting about this is that choppy plots of open sea attract far fewer competing interests than just about any onshore area in a developed country. Wind projects on land have to compete with existing land uses, not to mention neighbors who often aren’t thrilled about the sight and sound of giant rotors popping up in their scenic views. Clean energy demand (and energy demand more broadly) is concentrated in cities, but that’s where there’s the least open land for large-scale renewable energy installations. That pushes these interventions out to sparsely populated areas, where residents might not enjoy these disruptions that mostly benefit the urban cores. Situating new wind farms far offshore neatly evades the pitfalls of land-use politics.

As developed spaces fill up, the ocean becomes an inviting alternative. Scotland has also pursued underwater turbines to catch the tidal flow between their mainland and the Orkney Islands. Over in California, Microsoft has already tested offshore data farms as a way to run its cloud services without the usual land and energy requirements. It will be important to study what effect these have on the marine environment—just because humans don’t live down there doesn’t mean it’s empty—but given the disastrous effects fossil fuels are having on the oceans, the trade-off seems pretty clear.

About the Author

Julian Spector
Julian Spector

Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.

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