April 1, 2024
Director's Column

PNNL Scientists Are Working to Advance the Future of Floating Offshore Wind Farms

Originally Published in the Tri-City Herald on March 31, 2024
Photo of two floating wind turbines, and ships, at sea.

Researchers at PNNL are helping advance accelerate the deployment and reduce the cost of floating offshore wind energy in the United States. Shown here is the world’s first floating wind farm in Scotland’s Hywind installation.

(Photo by Terje Aase | Shutterstock.com)

If you have watched the Tri-Cities’ forceful springtime winds toss everything from tumbleweeds to trampolines, you have seen the power that could be harnessed as a clean energy source.

While land-based wind farms already generate about 10 percent of our country’s electricity, plans to meet national clean energy goals include capturing the potential of the stronger, more consistent winds that blow over the oceans. And for the West Coast, advancing floating offshore wind farms is critical because most water in the Pacific is too deep to affix turbines to the ocean floor. 

Wind energy makes up eight percent of the nation’s electricity mix in the United States and researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory work to understand offshore wind potential. (Video: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

One benefit of deploying floating turbines far from shore is they create fewer sight and sound impacts for stakeholders, which enables greater flexibility in designing turbine heights and blade lengths. However, floating offshore wind technologies are still maturing and more expensive than their counterparts built on the seabed.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are helping to address the challenges of floating wind farms, including faster deployment and mitigation of environmental impacts.

Their efforts are part of a national initiative to tap the potential for floating offshore wind to generate 2.8 terawatts of carbon-free electricity—more than the U.S. consumes annually—to help meet growing demand from homes, data centers, factories and the electrification of the transportation and building sectors.  

For example, scientists are using two PNNL-managed research buoys to collect atmospheric and oceanographic measurements that can improve wind forecasts at turbine heights. In studies off the California and Hawaii coasts, the buoys’ lidar systems and remote sensors captured data that is now publicly available.

buoy on blue water
A research buoy managed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory collects atmospheric and oceanographic data that can improve the accuracy of wind forecasts for floating offshore wind farms. (Photo: AXYS Services, Inc.)

These data can help improve the ability to accurately predict where, when and how much power can be produced. This information can help inform investment decisions, as well as help utilities plan their day-to-day balance of wind with other generation sources such as hydropower and solar.

PNNL supported efforts to incorporate more granular regional weather data like this into models for predicting output from land-based wind farms, saving utilities and their customers millions of dollars.

PNNL also leads a DOE Office of Science Energy Earthshot Research Center that brings together national laboratories and academia.

This collaboration will examine meteorological and oceanic conditions, how those conditions might change in the future and how power generated from floating turbines can be integrated into the grid. The project will use scientific machine learning tools to model the floating offshore wind energy system in current and future climates—all in the quest to bring down costs.

Harnessing wind energy is one thing but getting it from the sea to where it is needed is another. Researchers are reimagining how to design a future grid to optimize the value of this resource.

Digital image showing above- and below-water views of a floating offshore wind farm.
Researchers at PNNL are addressing the unique challenges associated with floating offshore wind farms, including mitigating potential environmental impacts and exploring future transmission models. (Photo by: Vismar UK | Shutterstock)

A study of the West Coast suggests the best transmission model requires creating a “backbone” that could deliver wind energy up and down the West Coast rather than depending on the congested lines along the I-5 corridor. Results like these will help inform researchers and aid policymakers’ planning and decision-making.

Other research focuses on the unique environmental impacts presented by floating installations. Unlike turbines attached to foundations built into the sea floor, these turbines sit on floating platforms that are tethered by cables to one another and to anchors hundreds of feet below.

PNNL engineers are studying how humpback whales might encounter these cables to understand potential risks. They also are working on a sensor to detect when debris gets caught in cables to avoid the possibility of entangling marine life.

Floating offshore wind, especially for the West Coast, is one of many approaches needed to decarbonize our energy system and combat climate change. At PNNL, we are dedicated to research and development that addresses the associated challenges, maximizes the benefits and informs decisions for moving this attractive option forward.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. To read previous Director's Columns, please visit our Director's Column Archive.