One Weird Trick Could Transform Entire Global Offshore Wind Industry

No, really. It’s that simple. To get more wind power into the grid without running up the risk of blackouts and other disruptions,

One Weird Trick Could Transform Entire Global Offshore Wind Industry

All you have to do is break one key problem down into two parts and then solve them one at a time. Anyways, that’s the theory. The devil is in the details but if all goes according to plan, this one weird trick could kickstart the global wind industry into an even higher gear than it is now.

A Red Flag For The Global Wind Industry

The new wind power problem-solving method was developed by a research team at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

They set out to tackle the issue of frequency dips, which refers to what happens when a generator gets damaged or some other systems failure occurs. Stuff like that happens all the time. In the normal course of things, grid operators figure out a workaround and nobody is the wiser.

If they can’t, well, there goes your power.

You can see where all this is going, right? With more wind turbines spinning around and what with variable wind speeds and all that, the chance of an unmanageable frequency dip could go up.

The UK wind industry got a red flag in that regard last August, when offshore turbine controllers at the Hornsea One offshore wind farm freaked out after a lightning strike elsewhere on the grid. They inadvertently pulled the entire wind farm offline, resulting in widespread blackouts in England and Wales.


“Thousands of homes were left without power, while people were stranded on trains and traffic lights stopped working. Power was restored some 40 minutes later, but problems on the rail network carried on over the weekend,” the Birmingham team recalls.

Wind Industry Saved By One Weird Trick

That episode gave the anti-wind faction a lot of grist for the mill, but they might want to put that cork back in the champagne bottle. The Birmingham study indicates that the solution to preventing wind farm outages is relatively simple and requires no additional equipment or investment.

That’s bad news for wind haters and good news for the global wind industry.

You can get all the details from IEEE Xplore under the title, “Fast Frequency Support From Wind Turbine Systems by Arresting Frequency Nadir Close to Settling Frequency.” The study is complicated but the gist of it is pretty simple.

“…currently the dominant variable speed wind turbine systems (WTSs) are mostly operating at maximum power point tracking (MPPT) mode and thus do not regulate their active power to support the power grid when the grid frequency deviates from its nominal value,” the U Birmingham team explains.

Got all that? Good! What they mean is that the wind turbine technology of today is not very good at switching things up in response to grid disruptions, especially when you throw variable wind speeds into the mix. When something goes wrong, it can trigger an unintended disconnection and everything goes running down the hall with its hair on fire, as happened at Hornsea One.

Wind industry researchers have proposed a bunch of different solutions, but some of these methods involve losses in both efficiency and revenue, or require additional capital outlays.

The Birmingham approach picks apart another avenue, which is to deploy the rotating kinetic energy of the turbine blades. That’s been tried before, but the problem is regulating the turbine recovery speed. If it moves too fast, it could trigger a second frequency dip that is even more serious than the disruption that started the problem in the first place.

To avoid that second dip, Birmingham proposes a sequence that starts with partial rotor speed recovery, then automatically moves on to a second phase for full recovery.

“…the proposed frequency support scheme releases more kinetic [energy], and it lasts for a longer time than the existing schemes when the rotor speed is restored during primary frequency control, so that FN [frequency nadir] using the new scheme can be raised to be close to the settling frequency with no concern of FSD [frequency second dip],” the team explains.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

Onward & Upward For Offshore Wind

All of this is especially good news for the US offshore wind industry. The UK and other nations have leaped ahead in the offshore race while the US still has just one tiny little 30-megawatt offshore wind farm in operation, but on the other hand the US has an opportunity to learn from the Hornsea debacle before plunking hundreds if not thousands of new wind turbines down into the ocean.

If you’re wondering why the US is so far behind, that’s a long story. The Obama administration attempted to speed things up but ran into state-based opposition. Somewhat ironically, US offshore wind activity has skyrocketed under President* Trump, who is known to be not a fan of wind power (or of masks, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms).

Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia are among the east coast states with ambitious plans for shepherding the offshore wind industry along. Even New Jersey is hatching plans for a wind hub. That’s quite a turnaround from the last governor, who famously blew off, so to speak, the state’s opportunity to lead the nation in offshore wind development.

As if on cue, yesterday Wood Mackenzie released a new report under the somewhat pedestrian title, “US offshore wind powers up.“

The report is anything but pedestrian. It indicates that the US offshore wind industry could ramp up from practically nothing to as much as  25 gigawatts by 2029. However, it also warns that a storm is a-brewing out there due to “permitting delays and political risk.”

Sure enough, earlier this year our friends over at E&E News reported that the Trump administration is trying to put the brakes on offshore winds projects.

Offshore Winds Industry & The Green Hydrogen Connection

That slowdown could be a temporary blip, depending on the outcome of the November elections. More concerning over the long run is the transmission bottleneck issue, which the Wood MacKenzie report also raises.

“Recent large-scale renewable energy-focused transmission projects have failed to move forward due to a combination of permit delays, NIMBYism and high network upgrade costs,” explains the report’s author, Wood MacKenzie principal analyst Max Cohen.

That brings us to one of our most favorite topics ever, green hydrogen. The offshore wind industry in Denmark is already taking a look at green hydrogen as a pathway for stimulating additional offshore wind development, even if the onshore transmission infrastructure can’t handle the load.

Here in the US, the state of Maine is exploring renewable hydrogen (aka power-to-gas) as a way to spread more green electrons across its far-flung grid without having to invest in new transmission lines and upgrades.

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