The cold, choppy waters of the North Sea are increasingly playing host to a new creature — the slender-necked, rotor-headed, offshore windmill.
Sprouting along the coasts of Germany, Norway, Denmark and more recently Belgium, offshore wind energy farms are the new temples for the 21st century environmentalism sweeping across Europe.
They perform the seemingly utopian transformation of a free, non-polluting resource — the wind — into the electricity needed to feed the power-hungry contemporary world. And being offshore, they avoid entanglements in the land-use disputes common in densely populated regions, while enjoying the higher and more consistent wind speeds available over the sea.
According to the European Wind Energy Association, the market for offshore wind energy in Europe over the next five to 10 years will be worth in excess of ¤88 billion. More, by 2030, offshore wind energy farms may provide nearly a fifth of the European Union's electricity, making a huge jump from the 1.5 Gigawatts they generate today to a mighty 150 Gigawatts.
But despite such robust predictions, offshore wind energy is far from being a shoo-in. The cold fact is that offshore farms cost more than twice their onshore siblings. Turbines at sea are harder to set up and maintain. Accessibility for even routine servicing is a major concern and during the harsh winter months, an entire farm may be unapproachable for long periods of time.
Finding innovative solutions to such problems is the key needed to help balance the energy demands of economic growth with the environmental stress associated with carbon. One such solution has now been devised at the Belwind wind energy farm off the coast of Belgium, one of Europe's largest and deepest offshore projects. If proven successful, it could conceivably revolutionise the offshore wind model by eliminating one of its greatest downsides: the expense of the maintenance of offshore parts.
And, it's not one of the cohort of usual suspects like Siemens, Areva or ABB that takes the credit for this innovation, but a household name in India, synonymous with the humble ceiling fan: Crompton Greaves (CG).
S M Trehan, Crompton Greaves' managing director, explains CG’s role in the project in layman terms: “In conventional offshore, there are lots of moving parts in the substation, needing maintenance. What we have done is devised a way to move all the moving parts from the substation and put them onshore, where maintenance is much easier and cheaper, dramatically improving the reliability and cost effectiveness of the offshore farm.”
CG participated in Belwind as part of a consortium consisting of steel fabrication firm Lemants, installation and maintenance services major Fabricom and CG’s system division. The design, procurement and construction of the high-voltage substation was CG's sole responsibility, as was connecting it to the electricity grid.
The Belwind project is a prestigious one, an estimated ¤900 million investment, backed in part by the European Investment Bank. When complete, it will power the equivalent of 350,000 households with 330 Mw of electricity. The first phase, the installation of 55 turbines, is expected to start supplying power within a couple of weeks.
Having been built some 12 months after the financial deal for the project was closed, it holds the record for shortest completion time for any offshore wind energy farm in the world. It is also the furthest away from the coastline, being some 50km offshore.
It was thus invisible from the port of Zeebrugge on a mid-September day, where members of the Avantha group (to which CG belongs) board, including chairman Gautam Thapar were gathered. Despite a relatively clear sky, a planned boat trip to visit the farm had to be cancelled. Waves near the farm were crashing in at a four-metre height and it was deemed unsafe. There was disappointment but also a sense of vindication for CG’s solution of onshore repair and maintenance of the substation.
“You can imagine what weather conditions are like in the winter if it’s already so bad now,” said Trehan. “Imagine trying to repair the offshore substation. It would be impossible.”
Nonetheless, it's unlikely to be smooth sailing for CG's innovation (a patent for which is currently pending). Avantha's chief, Gautam Thapar, candidly explained why. “It’s not a solution for everybody,” he said. "A large utility with millions of customers will want to play it a lot safer and may want to go with a more traditional design, since they are more risk-averse. They prefer to have everything in one place."
Thapar was referring to the established rival technology of high voltage direct current (HVDC) pushed by rivals like ABB and Siemens. It is currently the industry standard but given that it requires a lot of the equipment to remain offshore, CG is hoping the Belwind project will prove their technology to be superior.
CG has been marching across Europe with a string of acquisitions in recent years. Beginning with its 2005 acquisition of Pauwels, the Belgium-based power transformer maker, it has bought companies in the power systems sector in Hungary, Ireland, France and, most recently, in Britain. It thus already accounts for 30 per cent of the distribution transformer market for renewable energy in Europe.
But the Belwind project is a major milestone, marking CG's ascent into the high-value solutions and systems segment. For more than 200 years Europeans have dominated the engineering world, accounting for the great majority of technological breakthroughs. CG’s Belwind solution is a clear warning for them.