1. Tell us about IHCantabria and the important work it is carrying out in the energy sector.
IHCantabria is a research center that works to promote knowledge in anything related to maritime-coastal engineering and coastal and continental ecosystems. Specifically, it is a leading center in the development of new scientific-technical methodologies, processes, and products in fields such as coastal, port, offshore, and hydraulic engineering. Thanks to this and its specialization, it is a center of knowledge generation in the oceanic and coastal sphere that aims for recognition and return in society. To that end, it aims for close collaboration with the various stakeholders in the community surrounding it, from public authorities to various business initiatives.
In the field of offshore renewable energy, we have carried out more than 70 projects with the objective of acting as a catalyst in technology with developers, the most important energy companies, leading engineering firms in Spain and Europe, and construction companies in their diversification strategy.
2. In your experience, what role can wind power play in the energy transition and in the decarbonization of the world economy?
In our opinion, offshore wind power is defining itself as key player in the energy transition. This is not only due to the availability of resources, but also because the world’s population is concentrated on the coasts and there is growing social and environmental awareness that favors exploration of vast areas of maritime environments that can be exploited. Although we are using somewhat aggressive terms—such as exploited—this can and must be carried out sustainably with strategies that can reduce and mitigate impacts in order to obtain clean energy in maritime environments with equal or lesser impact than that seen on land, not only from a visual standpoint, but also from the standpoint of integration with the surroundings. This type of energy has a record that vouches for its capacity to generate resources with progressively higher rates of sustainability and technical-financial viability, as we have seen in the competitive tenders recorded in Northern Europe.
The current trend is to go more toward floating models. Right now the dominant technology is to use structures similar to those we see on land, but supported with monopiles, truss structures, or gravity-based structures.
3. Does offshore have more of a future than onshore? What are its benefits and drawbacks?
This energy source has arisen as an extension to onshore technology that has gone progressively from making concepts existing in the onshore wind power market “seaworthy” to developing new technologies that can be used to explore the continental shelf more ambitiously. In fact, one of the challenges to overcome is how to utilize resources in deepwater areas and far from the coast without negatively impacting the technical-financial viability of the wind farms. We also have to deal with very intense environmental conditions. The ocean is a hostile environment, not only in terms of the impact by waves and currents, but also from the standpoint of how the materials react in a corrosive environment where they can experience significant deterioration.
The uniqueness of the maritime environment without a doubt has an impact on the cost. Nonetheless, the benefits that the ocean offers have contributed to technological development that progressively improves design and utilization of the assets.
The benefits are not insignificant as, in addition to the significant availability of wind, it must be noted that the quality is higher than onshore, due to both the intensity and turbulence. This contributes to improved capacity factors and, consequently, the return on investment.
4. Could you summarize for us the industry’s current stage of evolution? What type of structure is currently used the most and where do the trends show us going?
The current trend is to go more toward floating models. Right now the dominant technology is to use structures similar to those we see on land, but supported with monopiles, truss structures, or gravity-based structures. Really, these structure types are very efficient in a specific range of depths. Notable among them are monopiles, which are simply towers like those we see on land, but driven into the seabed. This structure is very efficient and very economical and can be used in very specific geomorphological environments such as the North Sea, where the depth and presence of a seabed with few rocks make this type of structure ideal.
However, locations such as the North Sea or the Baltic Sea are limited. There is a large number of sites where fixed foundation technology cannot compete because it is limited to depths of less than approximately 40 meters. This is where floating platform technology takes the lead as it covers a very wide market, including Spain, Portugal, Macaronesia (which comprises the Canary Islands, the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde), the west coast of the United States, Japan, Korea, Asia in general, etc. There are publications by WindEurope that state that 80% of the resources are in deepwater areas. We must invest in this structure type.
5. What geographic characteristics are best for the installation of an offshore wind turbine? And in this regard, could you tell us what areas of the world have the most potential?
The areas with the greatest potential for the implementation of floating offshore wind power are coasts that have a continental shelf at a depth of approximately 150–200 meters and allow for relatively easy installation of platforms. Still, deeper areas can be used and there are a number of research projects working to assess the viability of exploring progressively deeper sites. The limit will be where the current state of knowledge and the price of the energy justify the investment. On the other hand, for fixed foundation technology, the optimal conditions are where the range of depths is limited to less than 40–50 meters.
In terms of resource availability, both hemispheres, the northern and southern, are very promising. In Northern Europe, there are many areas with a large quantity of resources—the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, etc—in addition to having depths that facilitate the use of fixed foundation structures.
In Spain, we have several points where resources are concentrated: the Cantabrian coast, specific sites on the Mediterranean coast, such as the Ebro Delta, Cap de Creus, and Almeria, in addition to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Gulf of Cadiz. The Canary Islands are another area with exceptional conditions thanks to the trade winds that are constant and at the optimal intensity to generate power between the islands with the highest topography.
The ocean is a hostile environment where, if a component or system breaks down or malfunctions, it can be a catastrophic error for the entire project.
6. Could you talk further about Spain’s specific case?
Spain has been a pioneer and one of the major leaders in the field of wind power in Europe and worldwide. This leading role has not translated to an equivalent role regarding offshore wind power. This is primarily because offshore wind power is being developed in Northern Europe where there are exceptional conditions. However, Spain is making a significant contribution to the development of offshore wind power, demonstrating significant industrial strength that is primarily located in Northern Spain. From Galicia to the Basque County, they are taking advantage of their geographic proximity and a high level of industrial specialization that is allowing these northern regions to successfully compete in offshore wind power. Of note are important names such as WINDAR and NAVANTIA, as well as smaller companies, leaders in component manufacturing and service provision that compete on equal footing in the European market.
In addition, Spain stands out due to its innovative character in this field. It is currently one of the European countries working to launch the most floating platform concepts in the deepwater market. It is not for nothing that in calls for bids, such as H2020 in Europe, Spain is a leading country in conducting research and innovation projects to develop this technology. Other notable projects include ELISA, TELWIND, COREWIND, FLOTANT, and PIVOTBUOY, among others, which are headed up by Spanish research centers and companies.
We are one of the European countries that is developing the most concepts. The opportunity has not arisen however to commercially launch any of these concepts, although we hope that soon it will be possible. At any rate, we can say that, in terms of technology, we have a very promising foundation to be an important participant in each and every opportunity that the market presents thanks to our business network and a group of research centers that covers practically the entirety of the industry’s value chain.
What are the principal difficulties that can arise when executing an offshore project?
The most notable obstacle in launching new offshore wind power technology is the cost. This is fundamentally because the valuation of a prototype includes field testing and that implies very high budget requirements. That is why only a small percentage of the designs currently on the market overcome this obstacle as they need an investor or industrial group with enough muscle to take the leap and fund the field testing. In Spain, we are fortunate enough to have two first-class test fields: BIMEP on the coast of Biscay and PLOCAN in Gran Canaria. These test centers facilitate the transition towards pre-commercial prototypes by lowering the field testing costs with infrastructure specifically designed for this purpose.
7. What risks are taken when building and assembling offshore structures? And what preventive measures are normally established to mitigate them? Are there clear differences between floating and fixed foundation wind turbines?
In this respect, all offshore operations have a higher level of risk than onshore operations. The ocean is a hostile environment where, if a component or system breaks down or malfunctions, it can be a catastrophic error for the entire project. The risks presented by each of the project’s operations are therefore analyzed with greater precision and detail.
The positive part is that offshore wind power, like any operation in this environment, has inherited a significant amount of naval and maritime experience. In other words, it is not starting from scratch. It has a foundation in risk management that has been built over decades.
At any rate, there is a group of expenditure items in an offshore wind power project that will always be earmarked for risk identification and mitigation and for the actions or counter measures in the event that there is an accident.
8. Regarding operational risk in the operation phase, what differences would you point out between onshore wind power, with extensive experience, and offshore wind power?
The main difference is that, when we are working at an onshore wind farm, we are guaranteed practically 100% accessibility. An operator with a small vehicle can access a turbine and repair each of its components without significant problems. But what about offshore? Conditions can occur, especially in winter, when it is not possible to transport personnel or materials to the wind platform, regardless of whether it is a floating or fixed foundation. That limits the operating capacity of the plant. Why? Because when there is a breakdown, we will not always be able to go to the structure to repair it or perform the required maintenance.
That is why a significant planning strategy must be performed. With this planning done, we can predict the breakdowns that will occur in a certain period, thereby correcting errors and defects before they occur by using preventive and predictive maintenance. This is especially important so that we can resolve these problems when accessing the structure.
9. How prepared is the offshore wind energy industry to respond to significant breakdowns (blades, submarine cables, etc.) on similar timelines to onshore wind energy?
If we are talking about a large repair or replacing one of the large pieces, there are two variables to take into account: first, the weather conditions—to access the platform—and second, equipment availability, which is very low at sea. Large cranes that can perform large-scale maintenance are very limited. This can significantly impact downtimes. Another factor is the weather and ocean conditions, which can disrupt access to the turbine.
BIMEP is a leading testing field that is used to test any offshore wind device since, due to the extreme conditions of the Cantabrian Sea, it can validate concepts and prototypes for almost any offshore environment.
In this regard, the wind farm’s large operators are performing extensive work to reduce the failure rate as much as possible and especially to be able to anticipate breakdowns. Work is also being done to create equipment for large-scale maintenance of fixed foundation wind turbines. For floating turbines, there is a competitive advantage in that large-scale maintenance can be done on land as the platforms can be moved to operation ports where this work can be performed extremely efficiently.
10. At IHCantabria, large projects are being undertaken, such as TRL+, an accelerator for deepwater maritime technology. Could you tell us about its objective and about the collaborators needed to carry it out?
It is a project that we are undertaking in collaboration with BIMEP. Our objective for the project is to combine the capacity of the two research centers. On one side, we manage a large test tank that can be used to validate concepts at a reduced scale. In addition, we have extensive numerical capacities after having developed our own models that we use to observe not only the behavior of structures at sea, but also maritime operations for structure installation, removal, transport, and access.
On the other side, BIMEP is a leading testing field that is used to test any offshore wind device since, due to the extreme conditions of the Cantabrian Sea, it can validate concepts and prototypes for almost any offshore environment.
What we are jointly offering with TRL+ for any developer is unique scientific and technological aid that can be used to contribute to the success of a project, from the initial design stages to the field testing. IHCantabria and BIMEP are combining capacities to accelerate the development of maritime technology that can later be used by the industrial network surrounding us.
11. They are also part of COREWIND, a European program that aims to tackle one of the sector’s major challenges: cost reduction. What does it consist of and why is it so necessary?
The objective of the COREWIND project, led by IREC (the Catalonia Institute for Energy Research), is to reduce the costs of floating wind turbines, addressing the problem with a specific set of components. It first seeks to improve anchoring systems, the dynamic cable for power extraction, and new operation and maintenance techniques for cost reduction. The COREWIND project is focusing its research on two concepts using concrete: a concrete spar developed by professor Climent Molins of the Universidad Politècnica de Catalunya and a semi-submersible concrete platform developed by COBRA, an ACS group company. The improvements in these important components for floating technology will undoubtedly contribute to the technology’s success.
COREWIND is also exploring the BIM (Building-In-Model) methods to work toward integrating knowledge and monitoring and to see how this type of tool is another part in improving costs through efficient asset management in the future. We can use these BIM methods to incorporate on-site monitoring information in real-time, in addition to the result of numeric models in order to evaluate the current and future state of our assets.
12. What other notable projects do you have in development, currently active, or just starting out?
At IHCantabria, we want to collaborate with the business network in our region, in Spain, and throughout the world by developing all types of R&D projects that we can use to provide support in significant engineering problems, such as scour problems for offshore structures. From this perspective, we have worked in collaboration with companies such as Iberdrola and Dragados Offshore. We have also taken part in the development of new floating platform concepts for leading companies such as COBRA and industrial consortia like Nautilus.
Additionally, IHCantabria participates as a research center in disruptive projects like TELWIND, which we developed in a consortium led by the Spanish company ESTEYCO where new floating platform technology was developed. We do not only work on developing new concepts, but also on the development of new components and methodologies. Of note is the ACCEDE project to develop innovative access systems for Spanish companies like DRACE and regional leaders such as Cantabrian workshops like DEGIMA. With this project, we are able to integrate regional SMEs with large enterprises. Also noteworthy is the POSEIDOM project to develop new maintenance and operation strategies for offshore wind farms with INGETEAM and ENEROCEAN. We want to be a vehicle for innovation for both SMEs and large companies and to ensure that both are able to compete internationally.
Raúl Guanche García, PhD in Civil Engineering, is the supervisor for the Marine Renewable Energies and Offshore Engineering Research Group at the Environmental Hydraulics Institute at the University of Cantabria (IHCantabria). He has had an intense research career and has worked with numerous engineering companies on projects focused on various areas associated with the ocean engineering sector.
In the past eight years, he has taken part in more than 50 projects in the field of offshore engineering and, more specifically, in the field of marine renewable energy, having developed numeric and experimental methodologies for offshore behavior analysis, mooring system design, floating wind platform design, and optimization, among other areas of specialization.
His research activity combines basic research with applied research in more than 50 technical-scientific publications, most of which have been in specialist journals such as Ocean Engineering, Renewable Energy, and Wind Energy. He is the co-inventor of nine patents on devices associated with offshore wind energy and marine aquaculture. In 2019, Raúl received the Ramón y Cajal Grant from the National Program for Promotion of Talent and its Employability in R&D.
EU Mermaid Project, funded by the European Union. IHCantabria collaborated in the development of a multi-purpose platform for offshore wind and wave power generation. It consists of a semi-submersible platform equipped with a 5MW turbine, in addition to three columns of water oscillating on their vertices to generate power from waves.