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The Environment Ministry of Japan will begin installing two floating offshore wind turbines this summer as a way to help diversify the country's generation mix in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Post-Fukushima, Japan is spending approximately $100 million each day on liquid natural gas, which is then burned to create electricity to replace the turned-off nuclear power. However, the country believes that an offshore wind demonstration project can eventually lead to a new major contributor to Japan's generation mix.

Over the next two years, the Japanese government will continue taking incremental steps to prove the floating offshore turbine technology, testing three additional types of floating turbine technology. The best-performing turbine type may then be chosen to power a larger offshore wind farm - up to 1,000 MW - located off the Fukushima coastline.

The success of Japan's floating offshore wind ambitions could catalyze the creation of a new market for floating turbines, according to Johan Sandberg, head of the renewable energy department at DNV KEMA Energy & Sustainability, which advises on floating offshore wind technology.

However, the success of the Japanese project is by no means a given. Additionally, as there are only two full-scale offshore wind projects in the world that feature floating wind turbines, the Fukushima project represents a huge impact on the learning curve associated with floating wind turbine technology.

Complicating matters, Sandberg says, is that Japan is not likely to replicate the lessons learned from the two existing full-scale floating offshore wind projects, located in Norway (from Statoil) and Portugal (Principle Power).

He cautions that solely relying on domestic intelligence could be a mistake for Japan, as many problems have been encountered before outside of Japan and missing the lessons learned from these earlier projects could place Japan several years behind.

"In Europe, this industry started 10 years ago, and some very valuable experience is now available in the market," he says.

Sandberg emphasizes that the floating wind industry is in a vulnerable phase and a failed project could have a devastating impact on the entire market globally.

"Therefore, we are crossing our fingers that the [Japanese] project will be open to international collaboration in order to minimize safety, technical and economic risks to the largest extent possible,” he explains.

Japan is hardly the only country studying the floating technology. In December 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded up to $4 million each for seven projects to complete the engineering, design and permitting phases of offshore wind farms, three of which will feature floating turbine foundations. The DOE will select up to three of the seven projects for follow-on phases that focus on siting, construction and installation and aim to achieve commercial operation by 2017.

"Floating foundation technology for offshore wind has great potential in the U.S.," explains Jim Lanard, executive director of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition. "And the developers of this new technology are making great strides to prove the technology and reduce its cost."

If floating offshore wind foundations prove viable - particularly in water depths greater than 400 feet - the technology may have the potential to reduce a wind farm's installation costs.

"Due to the water depths off of the West Coast of the U.S., offshore wind farms will only be viable with the use of floating foundations, since it will not be economical to build fixed platforms in such deep waters," says Lanard.

Photo: Statoil's Hywind floating turbine located off the coast of Norway. Photo courtesy of Statoil ASA.


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