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Energy crisis: France bets on floating offshore wind energy

Lisa Louis Fos-sur-Mer, France
November 22, 2022

France has become the first country to tender out industrial-size floating offshore wind farms. The floating platforms are more promising than existing renewables but still have some hurdles to overcome.

A floating wind farm under construction in France
France is banking on floating wind farms to meet its future energy needsImage: EIFFAGE

On a recent Monday morning, a group of journalists visited what could be the beginning of a new energy era in the port of Fos-sur-Mer on the French Mediterranean coast. It's here that one of France's four floating wind farm pilot projects is taking shape.

The country aims to take the lead in this sector. But technical and financial challenges abound.

Floating offshore wind farms feature turbines mounted atop floating platforms that are moored to the ground — as opposed to towers atop foundations installed on the seabed like in conventional, so-called bottom-fixed offshore wind farms.

The pilot project's size is limited to 25 megawatts. A nuclear reactor is 40 times bigger with a capacity of roughly 1,000 megawatts (one gigawatt). But floating offshore wind energy is a bearer of hope; unlike existing renewables, it could produce electricity 24/7.

"Traditional offshore wind farms can only be constructed in up to 50 meters of water, but there's no such limitation for floating platforms. They can be installed further away from the coast where the wind is stronger," Christine de Jouette, project director of Provence Grande Large at EDF Renewables, told DW.

"These wind farms could be key to reaching carbon neutrality," she added looking at the three yellow-grey 45-meter high and 80-meter wide metal structures behind her.

Christine de Jouette
Christine de Jouette from EDF Renewables is betting big on floating offshore wind farmsImage: Lisa Louis/DW

Ukraine war spurs interest in floating wind farms

EDF Renewables and its co-developers, the Canadian companies Enbridge and CPP Investment, are investing €300 million ($308 million) in the pilot wind farm, which will be installed 17 kilometers off the coast in about 100 meters of water.

Amongst the roughly 140 people working at the construction site to get the project running by next year was a team from platform provider SBM Offshore. The Dutch company has been mainly active in the oil and gas sector but is now hoping to supply platforms for 2GW of floating offshore wind projects by 2030. That would represent 25% of its business.

"With the war in Ukraine, every country needs to be independent in terms of energy — there's real interest in a balanced energy mix around the world," Stephanie St Hill, commercial director for renewables at SBM Offshore, told DW, adding that the demand for floating offshore wind platforms had gone up since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

"We can see that this energy type will be part of the future mix," she emphasized.

Renewables are indeed thought to be one of the solutions to the current energy crisis caused by the Ukraine war. In France, fears of blackouts during the winter are mounting as several nuclear reactors remain offline for maintenance or repairs.

Nuclear energy normally accounts for about 70% of France's electricity production.

More energy through floating wind parks

A matter of not losing face

Meanwhile, the country has been falling short of its renewable energy targets.

As far as wind energy is concerned, a mere 20GW is up and running so far, making France's goal of 24GW by the end of next year seem out of reach.

No conventional offshore wind farms have been commissioned yet, and only one is under construction — more than ten years on from when the project was awarded. One reason for that is local resistance against such projects — which might be less strong against floating wind farms installed further away from the coast.

France is aiming to capitalize on that. It has launched the world's first tender for industrial-size floating wind energy projects.

Anna Creti, director of the Climate Economics Chair at Paris-based Dauphine University, says for France, its push into offshore wind energy is also a matter of reputation.

"The country trying to take the lead in floating offshore wind is a question of not losing face given that it's lagging in bottom-fixed offshore wind energy," Creti told DW.

Technical and financial hurdles ahead

However, installing floating offshore wind farms might not be that straightforward.

"It's not clear yet which technology will win the day — there are several technical solutions in the market. And a lot of steel is needed to construct the platforms — finding that steel might prove to be a bottleneck," she said.

Developers will also have to contend with the nitty-gritty technical details of this yet-to-mature technology, stressed Adel El Gammal, secretary general at Brussels-based European Energy Research Alliance.

"As the platforms are floating, this creates additional movements and fatigue on all the moving elements. To take that into account, the sensitive elements are currently over-dimensioned," he told DW.

"The name of the game will be to decrease the costs of floating wind, also by finding the optimal size for these elements before getting them into industrial production," El Gammal added.

Currently, floating offshore wind energy is at least twice as expensive as conventional offshore wind energy.

Other countries are in the race too

France is not alone in the floating playing field. Norway, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, and Italy are also competing to harness the wind off their shores. Globally, Japan, the United States, and South Korea could become important players in the market.

Christine de Jouette thinks that such a competition is not necessarily a bad thing.

"We're hoping to be awarded France's industrial-size projects, but we're also looking at markets such as the US, China, and Taiwan," she said.

The global potential for floating offshore wind is estimated at 3,500GW.

Of course, that capacity is not exactly around the corner — France's first commercial floating offshore wind farms won't produce electricity until at least 2030.

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey