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Imagine a wind turbine in the middle of the ocean, much taller than the Statue of Liberty. Now slap a “GE” logo on it.

GE has shared plans of a new concept that might transform the future of renewable energy, proposing the development and commercial construction of floating wind turbine farms capable of expanding offshore wind development into deep ocean regions, according to a blog post shared on the company’s website.

Such a megalithic undertaking is rare. So rare that it may give us pause: can a floating wind turbine survive the ravages of the deep ocean?

GE is adapting its 12-MW wind turbine for an offshore platform

Floating wind turbines are colossal structures proposed to leverage more of the two-thirds of the Earth smothered in water as prime energy-generating real estate, but many earlier proposals have proved too expensive to take seriously. Mainly because, well, they’re floating in the ocean, where big waves and hurricane-level winds are known to happen. But GE thinks these challenges can be overcome via advanced turbine controls built in collaboration with a consulting firm called Glosten. Together, the pair are integrating advanced sea-based floating solutions with GE’s largest turbine model, which is nearly the combined height of the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty.

We can’t help ourselves: it really is a tall order.

So far, GE has raised $3 million in awards from the U.S. Department of Energy to build its two-year project. Construction began in 2020, and if the company can show via simulations and modeling that its design is feasible, then it has a shot at building a real-world prototype. The new announcement from GE reflects talks that transpired under the eye of the DOE, during an “Energy Innovation Summit”. But as you might guess, this is easier said than done.

Developing and building a wind turbine capable of floating effortlessly on the turbulent waters of the deep ocean is like “putting a bus on a tall pole, making it float and then stabilizing it while it interacts with wind and waves,” said GE’s Principal Investigator Rogier Blom, in a report from The Verge. Yet the design of the turbines isn’t so different from other turbines attached directly to the seafloor — except for the floating platform hoisting the turbine above the water, with controls used to adjust the platform while swaying to and fro on the open ocean. GE aims to couple its design of an already-existing 12-MW turbine and platform with the novel automated controls, to enable a streamlined alternative. The plan is for the controls, consisting of computers and sensors, to optimize the response time and effectiveness on the wind and waves that’ve sunk countless ships for millennia.

Automating offshore wind turbines in real-time

If it works, the floating turbine will change its orientation automatically in anticipation of strong wind gales, without flopping down into a watery grave. This strategy could prove to increase the company’s profit — since other floating turbines trade in this kind of high-tech automation for a bulkier platform. Another company named SolarDuck recently tugged a very different take on offshore energy up a river in the Netherlands. Called the Demonstrator, SolarDuck’s offshore model calls for a triangular, flat platform covered in solar panels. “The upward and downward direction of lift is significant — you don’t want the floating solar panel assemblies to fly away,” said CTO SolarDuck Don Hoogendoorn, in an interview with IE.

However, away from the equator where (for example, in the North Atlantic) wind gales rise to dangerous levels, GE’s concept might prove more profitable than floating offshore platforms. The company’s concept will use “tension-leg platforms” that are anchored to the seabed via adjustable “tendons.” Combined with new automated technology, the system would identify incoming wind and swell activity, and adjust the tendon lengths in real-time, to give the gigantic offshore wind turbine platform a smooth time on turbulent waves. This is a promising proposal from GE, one worth exploring, but only time will tell if the concept can prove a match to the unforgiving moods of the deep ocean.

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