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Can wind power find its footing in the deep?

Fifteen miles off Scottish coast, Venture Intends to show turbines can be effective without spoiling anyone’s view.

OFF THE MORAY FIRTH, Scotland -- Rising high above the water, the two gleaming white structures look like an outsize art installation. But they have a more practical purpose: Each is a giant wind turbine, part of a British project that could prove a breakthrough for wind power around the globe. Among the dwindling oil and gas fields of the North Sea, Britain has built the world’s biggest wind turbines -- each has blades longer than a football field -- in the Moray Firth, a large inlet off the rugged east coast of Scotland. What’s unusual about the effort is its dimensions: While existing offshore wind projects tend to be in shallow waters close to the coast, the Moray Firth venture is expected to culminate in the first offshore wind farm in deep water (150 feet) far from land (15 miles).

Talisman Energy Inc., the Canadian oil and gas company running the project in a joint venture with utility Scottish & Southern Energy PLC, plans to ramp it up into a spectacular 200-turbine wind farm that would turn North Sea gales into enough electricity for a million people -- a fifth of Scotland’s population. Completion is probably at least seven years away, the company says. Called Project Beatrice after the oil field beneath it (which itself was named by Dallas tycoon T. Boone Pickens for his second wife), the effort is being closely watched in the US, where not-in-my-backyard pressure groups have led noisy campaigns against near-shore wind farms that they say blot the coastal landscape. Just such a protest is confronting Cape Wind Associates LLC’s plan to install 130 wind turbines six miles off Cape Cod, Mass., close to resorts like Martha’s Vineyard. The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound has pointed to Beatrice as proof that wind power stations needn’t be close to land. „Beatrice shows deepwater is a technical reality today,” says Audra Parker, a spokeswoman for the Alliance.

Deepwater wind-farm technology also has its critics, who say the turbines can encroach on shipping lanes and harm seabird sanctuaries. They can also be prohibitively expensive, because they require long undersea transmission lines to hook turbines up to the grid system. Beatrice bears that out. So far it has cost $90 million -- or about $9 million per megawatt of installed generating capacity. By comparison, a gas-fired power station costs less than $1.5 million per MW installed to build. Britain is trying to combat those high costs with financial incentives that have made it the most attractive market for offshore wind farms in Europe, according to a recent study by accounting firm KPMG LLP. The United Kingdom says it will generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. What gives Britain a potential edge in developing large-scale deepwater wind power is the nation’s long history of offshore oil and gas. Discovered in the 1960s, the massive oil reservoirs of the North Sea have fueled Britain for more than 30 years and sparked a huge services boom, especially in places like Aberdeen, on Scotland’s east coast. The oil there is running out, fast.

„A hundred thousand people work in the energy sector here,” says Paul O’Brien, head of the Renewable Energy Development team at Scottish Development International. „We’re looking at renewables as a way of keeping people employed.” Scotland has around 25% of Europe’s wind-energy resource and some of the continent’s best potential wind, wave and tidal sites. Mr. O’Brien calls Pentland Firth, a strait between North Scotland and the Orkney Islands, the „Saudi Arabia of tidal power.” Locating a wind farm so far out to sea presented Talisman with technical challenges. Most offshore wind turbines are built on tripods or monopiles drilled into the seabed. But you can’t use them in water deeper than about 65 feet. So Talisman used a jacket structure with four legs and a lattice frame -- a design borrowed from oil rigs. Such a structure uses less steel so it’s lighter and more flexible, says Allan McAskill, Beatrice’s project director.

The Beatrice subsea structures were built by local engineering firm Burntisland Fabrications Ltd. at Methil, a yard near Edinburgh that had produced many of the offshore rigs and platforms deployed during the North Sea oil boom. Methil is now reinventing itself as a center for renewables. „We wanted to diversify and not be too dependent on oil and gas,” says John Robertson, chief executive of Burntisland. Methil will soon start mass-producing the Beatrice turbines, turning out 50 to 70 of them a year, he says. Being an oil and gas company also made it easier for Talisman to get Beatrice up and running. The company fast-tracked the permits needed to install its turbines by using its existing North Sea oil and gas operating license. That’s because they’ll initially be used to power Talisman’s oil platforms. Later, the company’s rigs will serve as a base to maintain and monitor the wind farm, so Talisman won’t have to decommission them -- a task that can cost millions of dollars.

So far, even in Scotland, offshore wind is in its infancy. There are only 1,200 megawatts of offshore wind-power capacity installed globally, with Denmark, the world leader, and accounting for about a third of that. Britain, with 400 megawatts, is in second place, but has big ambitions. „We’re working with the government on having 20,000 MW of offshore wind capacity installed by 2020, „ says Gordon Edge, director of economics and markets at the British Wind Energy Association. „We’re easily going to be half the market for this technology.” (The Wall Streets Journal)