Anyone who thinks rapid global decarbonization is out of reach should take a look at the floating wind turbine sector. Floating wind seemingly popped up out of nowhere in just the past couple of years, and it has already hooked up with the splashy new green hydrogen trend. Too bad those pesky cryptocurrency speculators are sucking up all the clean kilowatts, but that’s another new trend and a whole ‘nother can of worms.
Floating Wind & Green Hydrogen To The Rescue
For those of you new to the topic, putting a wind turbine on a platform that floats is a technologically difficult exercise, but the payoff is huge in terms of rapid decarbonization. Floating platforms can be tethered to the seabed in deeper waters and/or farther from shore, which takes advantage of prime wind speeds while minimizing opposition from coastal communities.
The green hydrogen angle comes in for squeezing the most available juice possible from wind turbines. Hydrogen is a zero emission fuel that can be combusted to run turbines, or deployed in a fuel cell to generate electricity. At the present time, though, almost all of the global hydrogen supply comes from natural gas. That’s going to change because low-cost renewable energy has upended the economics of hydrogen production, making it financially feasible to “split” hydrogen gas from water with an electrical current.
Since hydrogen acts as a transportable energy storage medium, water-splitting provides a way to salvage excess energy from wind turbines or solar panels. The case for wind turbines is especially strong because winds generally pick up at night, when electricity demand goes down.
Other sustainable hydrogen pathways include biogas, industrial waste gas, wastewater, and waste plastics, but water-splitting seems to be attracting the most attention these days.
Pie In The Sky? No, Wind Turbines That Float
Into this picture steps a venture called Cerulean Winds, which has come up with a financing formula for scaling the floating wind-plus-hydrogen connection to the national level.
The idea would have seemed far fetched just a few years ago, but both the floating wind industry and the green hydrogen industry are rapidly maturing.
“Cerulean utilises a tuned infrastructure project finance (IPF) construct with integrated delivery and finance that is proven for the offshore floating environment,” Cerulean explains. “At its core is the comprehensive understanding of risk for floating infrastructure and the most appropriate allocation of these risks across our partner and stakeholder ecosystem,” the company states.
Cerulean’s “Blueprint” model is aimed at cutting the timeline between applying for a license and producing clean kilowatts. According to the company, its Blueprint platform also provides for more flexibility than the conventional centralized power plant structure, which is a key point in the distributed energy landscape of today. Energy storage and cross-border trading are also in the mix.
Serial Oil & Gas Developers Turn To Green Hydrogen
The new Cerulean proposal is billed as the “UK’s largest offshore decarbonisation development.” At a cost of £10 billion, it would sport at least 200 wind turbines floating wind turbines with integrated green hydrogen systems, in two North Sea areas, West of Shetland and Central North Sea.
Before you get too excited, one leading aim of the project is to provide clean electricity to existing offshore facilities, namely, offshore oil and gas drilling sites. Cerulean projects that 3 gigawatts in hourly capacity will go to the oil and gas industry. Still, that leaves 1.5 gigawatts per hour in capacity for green hydrogen production systems to be located on shore.
If the offshore oil and gas angle sounds rather unappealing, it is. However, the reality is that switching millions of automobiles, buildings, and other systems over to clean power is a time consuming process. A movement is already afoot to replace diesel and gas generators on offshore drilling platforms with clean power. The Cerulean proposal is part of that trend, ramped up with the green hydrogen angle.
Cerulean has just submitted a seabed lease request to Marine Scotland, so if anything happens out there in the North Sea it could be a long way off. However, Cerulean has already set the contractor and financial wheels in motion, and in that regard the project does demonstrate that the oil and gas industry could pivot rapidly into low carbon mode, if it chose to do that.
“Cerulean Winds is led by serial entrepreneurs Dan Jackson and Mark Dixon, who have more than 25 years’ experience working together on large-scale offshore infrastructure developments in the oil and gas industry,” the company explains. “They believe the risk of not moving quickly on basin wide decarbonisation would wholly undermine the objectives set out in the recent North Sea Transition Deal.”
To sweeten the pot, Cerulean anticipates undercutting the cost of conventional gas turbine power for offshore platforms. According to the company, oil and gas operators would not incur any up-front costs from the switchover.
Floating Wind, Green Hydrogen, & Green Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
To make the case for speeding up the lease approval process, Jackson and Dixon are appealing to the potential for the wind-plus-hydrogen project to create thousands of new green jobs. Ideally the fossil energy jobs will phase out over time, but in the meanwhile Cerulean aims to show that the floating wind plus green hydrogen combo can maintain employment in the fossil sector while adding new green jobs to the economy, at scale. According to the company’s analysis, over the next five years the project will help preserve 160,000 oil and gas jobs while adding 200,000 new green jobs.
More Bad News For ExxonMobil
“The development of green hydrogen at scale and £1 billion hydrogen export potential” is another key pot-sweetener offered by Cerulean, and that should really give gas stakeholders the heebie-jeebies.
Looking at you, ExxonMobil. In terms of making global decarbonization happen, the company has lagged far behind Shell, BP, and other legacy fossil energy companies. Instead of pumping more money into proven clean tech fields like wind and solar, ExxonMobil banked on algae biofuel while doubling down on shale gas in recent years, apparently with the idea that it could continue making fossil energy relevant by comparing gas emissions to coal emissions.
The idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” has fallen flat for a number of reasons, including evidence that the recent spike in natural gas emissions may have offset any gains from pushing coal out of the power generation picture.
Now that hydrogen fuel cell demand is up, ExxonMobil and other natural gas stakeholders are been banking on increased demand for hydrogen to fuel the global economy’s thirst for natural gas. However, schemes like the Cerulean floating wind proposal are quickly shutting that window.
Gas stakeholders could try leaning on the exploding cryptocurrency market to pitch their wares. Speculative crypto mining is an energy intensive process that could help prop up both gas and coal producers for years to come.
To be clear, not all cryptocurrency is speculative. The firm Power Ledger, for example, is deploying a crypto-plus-blockchain model that helps electricity users share excess clean kilowatts.
It’s the speculative crypto market that has become a huge public relations problem for industries looking to decarbonize. Banking, real estate, auto sales and other high-dollar sectors have been getting cryptocurrency-curious, but energy consumption by crypto mining systems has become a public relations ball-and-chain.
As leading global corporations move into the supply chain phase of decarbonization, crypto miners are vulnerable. Switching to renewable energy is one solution, but in the context of the urgent need for climate action, any sector that adds to the global energy demand load will have to make the case that it is not simply playing carbon whack-a-mole with clean energy resources.
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Image: Floating wind turbines via US Department of Energy (credit: Josh Bauer, NREL).