Giant wind turbines, floating out of sight
An MIT researcher has a vision: 400 huge offshore wind turbines providing onshore customers with enough electricity to power several hundred thousand homes—and nobody standing onshore can see them. The trick? The wind turbines are floating on platforms a hundred miles out to sea, where the winds are strong and steady.
Today’s offshore wind turbines usually stand on towers driven deep into the ocean floor. But that arrangement works only in water depths of about 15 meters or less. Proposed installations are therefore typically close enough to shore to arouse strong public opposition.
Paul D. Sclavounos, a professor of mechanical engineering and naval architecture, has spent decades designing and analyzing large floating structures for deep-sea oil and gas exploration. Observing the wind-farm controversies, he thought, “Wait a minute. Why can’t we simply take those windmills and put them on floaters and move them farther offshore, where there’s plenty of space and lots of wind?”
In 2004, he and his MIT colleagues teamed up with wind-turbine experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to integrate a wind turbine with a floater. Their design calls for a tension leg platform (TLP), a system in which long steel cables, or “tethers,” connect the corners of the platform to a concrete-block or other mooring system on the ocean floor. The platform and turbine are thus supported not by an expensive tower but by buoyancy. “And you don’t pay anything to be buoyant,” said Sclavounos.