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

Most Popular

  1. Smoke from the fires hangs over Brazil.
    Environment

    Why the Amazon Is on Fire

    The rash of wildfires now consuming the Amazon rainforest can be blamed on a host of human factors, from climate change to deforestation to Brazilian politics.

  2. Graduates react near the end of commencement exercises at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, U.S.
    Life

    Where Do College Grads Live? The Top and Bottom U.S. Cities

    Even though superstar hubs top the list of the most educated cities, other cities are growing their share at a much faster rate.

  3. An aerial photo of downtown Miami.
    Life

    The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

    Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.

  4. Transportation

    CityLab University: Induced Demand

    When traffic-clogged highways are expanded, new drivers quickly materialize to fill them. What gives? Here’s how “induced demand” works.

  5. a map of London Uber driver James Farrar's trip data.
    Transportation

    For Ride-Hailing Drivers, Data Is Power

    Uber drivers in Europe and the U.S. are fighting for access to their personal data. Whoever wins the lawsuit could get to reframe the terms of the gig economy.

×