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Portugal has become a prime spot for wave energy farms, given the coastal conditions and the government’s support for renewable energy projects. Now Portuguese energy powerhouse Energias de Portugal has signed an agreement with Seattle’s Principle Power for a deep-water floating wind farm.

It’s the second floating wind farm for Principle Power, which last October inked a contract to construct a 150-megawatt turbine power plant off the Oregon coast. The Oregon plan calls for 30 floating platforms that will each sport a five-megawatt wind turbine – which is about twice the size of the biggest land-based turbines in commercial operation. (General Electric (GE) makes a 3.6-megawatt turbine designed for offshore and Clipper Windpower is developing a ten-megawatt prototype.)

Details of the deal with Portugal’s EDP, however, are next to non-existent. Principle Power president Jon Bonanno told Green Wombat that the size of the Portuguese wind farm, the type of turbine it will use, its cost and build date are confidential. “What I can say is that the phased build out will result in a utility scale project, within a reasonable time frame for a plant of its size and nature,” Bonanno wrote in an e-mail.

The Seattle startup did reveal that the agreement with EDP calls for it to first deploy a single floating turbine platform, which it calls a WindFloat. “Innovative features of the WindFloat dampen wave and turbine induced motion, enabling wind turbines to be sited in previously inaccessible locations where water depth exceeds 50 meters and wind resources are superior,” Principle said in a statement.

If the WindFloat is successful, then a demonstration project will be built and a commercial wind farm will follow. Deep-water offshore wind farms pose a number of technological and economic challenges but the expected payoff is the production of  cheaper electricity from massive turbines that will be located far enough offshore to avoid the NIMBY problems that have plagued projects in the United States and elsewhere.

EDP became one of the world’s biggest wind farmers in 2007 when it acquired Horizon Wind Energy from Goldman Sachs for $2 billion.

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Illustration: Principle Power

A Seattle-based renewable energy startup, Principle Power, has signed an agreement to build a deep-sea, 150-megawatt wind farm to be constructed on floating platforms off the Oregon coast.

The deal with the Tillamook Intergovernmental Development Agency – which includes the local utility for a coastal county west of Portland – is very early stage but foreshadows two technological trends in the wind industry: massive megawatt turbines placed on deep-ocean platforms.

Principle Power co-founder Jon Bonanno tells Green Wombat that each floating platform – called a WindFloat – will feature a 5-megawatt turbine. By contrast, the biggest biggest land-based turbines are typically 2.5 megawatts, while General Electric (GE) makes a 3.6-megawatt turbine designed for offshore use.

Bigger turbines offer better economies of scale (important given the steep cost of developing offshore wind farms), and since a deep-ocean wind turbine is not visible from the coast, they avoid the not-in-my-backyard fights that dog near-shore projects. (Clipper Windpower of Carpinteria, Calif., is developing a ten-megawatt monster for England’s Crown Estate, while European wind companies like Enercon has been testing turbines in the six megawatt range.)

“It’s becoming an increasingly important component of the mix in Europe,” says Ethan Zindler, head of North American research for New Energy Finance, a London-based firm. “I think a lot of it is conceptual at this point. There’s still a lot of barriers in turbine design and transport.”

Beyond the technological challenges of supersizing a turbine, there’s the issue of how to get a 300-foot-tall windmill out to sea without breaking the bank. Various wind companies are tackling the problem but Principle Power’s solution is to license the WindFloat technology from a Berkeley, Calif.-based startup called Marine Innovation & Technology. The company’s founders, who previously worked on offshore platforms for the oil industry, designed the WindFloat to be semi-submersible. “The design and size of the WindFloat enables the overall structure to be assembled onshore and towed to its final location, significantly reducing construction costs,” according to Principle Power.

“The WindFloat has undergone concept development validation through numerical modeling, third party engineering verification and extensive wave tank testing,” Bonanno said in an e-mail, noting that he expects a full-scale prototype to be built within a year.

Depending on the permitting process and Principle’s ability to obtain project financing, Bonanno anticipates the wind farm to be up and operating between 2013 and 2015.  Early estimates peg the cost of the wind farm at about $375 million.

Pat Ashby, the general manager of the 19,000-customer Tillamook People’s Utility District, says his utility has a capacity of 50 megawatts so it would most likely serve as an interconnection point to transmit electricity from the wind farm to the regional power grid. “Our substations are all along the coast,” he says. “There’s only a dozen miles or less to get to a substation.”

According to Ashby, the cost of laying a transmission line is about $1 million a mile. On the other hand, if the wind farm is too close to shore, residents will likely get riled up about the impact on their views. “We’ve already had an organized group come forward to express their concerns,” he says.

Bonanno notes that if the wind farm was placed five miles off the coast, the turbines would appear to be the size of a thumb from the shore; at ten miles they would not be visible.

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