13 August 2015 16:35:05 IST

FORWARD shows the way forward

A gigantic offshore turbine project off Fukushima has lessons for India on how it can leverage wind energy better

Fukushima! The name evokes memories of 30-feet-high waves crashing perilously against a nuclear reactor, raising the spectre of nuclear disaster and lending muscle to anti-nuclear protests.

Not any more. Well, these perceptions still persist; but a positive development at Fukushima is likely to cancel out the negatives.

This development is known by the acronym ‘FORWARD’.

Biggest turbine

In just a few months, the seas off Fukushima will be home to the world’s biggest wind turbine — a monstrous 7-MW machine that rises 105 metres above the surface of the sea, and whose 80-metre-long blades sweep an area equivalent to two-and-a-half football fields. Yes, the world’s biggest!

The towering monument is standing testimony to the grit and resolve of the Japanese who, having suffered the worst natural catastrophe that is estimated to have cost them $80 billion, have begun at that very place a programme they mockingly call ‘Fukushima recovery’, as though cocking a snook at Nature.

The project, called Fukushima Offshore Wind Farm Demonstration, or FOrWarD, involves three wind turbines on floating platforms — kind of like barges — the biggest (and the second) of which is the 7-MW machine currently under installation.

The first is a 2MW machine, huge in its own right but a dwarf compared with its soon-to-be neighbour, and the third will be a 5MW turbine — making in all 14MW at the demonstration farm. The Japanese government is spending $222 million on the project — ₹100 crore a MW — frightfully expensive, but what is money when national pride is to be hoisted high?

The 7MW machine, made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, will stand on vortex of a V-shaped barge and will be connected to a half-submerged sub-station. Wind turbines on floating structures — which can be towed away if necessary — are still a matter of unproven technology and Japan wants to take the lead.

Demonstration project

(To digress a little here, the Japanese have also just decided to go back to nuclear power. The semantic shift between ‘go back on’ and ‘go back to’ is pretty significant. It just takes the wind out of the sails of the anti-nuclear lobby, for whom Fukushima had become a symbol of their protests.)

FOrWarD is indeed a demonstration project — not just for the Japanese, but for the entire world.

In future, it is inconceivable that India will not have offshore wind farms. Expensive they sure are (costs will come down as you have more of them), but offshore wind projects enjoy advantages that onshore ones can never have.

The advantages

First, there is no problem of land availability or the headache of acquiring land from owners. Second, logistics is no problem — you can ship 80-metre-long blades to the mid-sea site as easily as blowing a whistle.

Third, winds are high as you go farther into the sea, unhindered by hills, trees or buildings and, therefore, the machines generate a lot more power than they would onshore.

Four, you can intercrop barge-mounted solar farms, produce power day and night and wheel it to users on land through common cables.

Five, there is no environmental issue such as noise which has been the bugbear of the wind power industry, particularly in the developed West. In fact, if anything the structures become reefs at which fish breed.

India is no stranger to deep waters. When you fly to, say, Dubai from Mumbai you will see hundreds of oil platforms.

Why don’t we see hundreds of offshore wind turbines? Unlike Fukushima, they don’t even have to stand on floating structures — a huge technological challenge. In our not-so-deep western seas, they can be moored to the sea-bed — just as the oil platforms are.

Time to get ready

Offshore wind in India is as yet absent, but there is a pilot project underway. Actual installation will take time — things happen in India at glacial pace — but that is alright. Let the rest of the world develop and de-bug the technology, create scale, bring down costs and create the ecosystem needed for the logistics, skills, and so on. Then India can move in.

Right now it is important for India to do the preliminaries — put up high masts and collect wind data, and be ready to move in aggressively.

Offshore wind is an idea whose time is coming. FORWARD shows the way forward.