Climate Crisis

How do you anchor a giant wind turbine? With a giant suction cup, of course

A view shows windmills of several wind farms at the so-called "HelWin-Cluster", located 35 kilometres (22 miles) north of the German island of Heligoland November 5, 2014. As European governments start to curb offshore renewable power subsidies, utilities, wind turbine makers and installers are racing to cut costs to help the industry survive. Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, wary of committing billions of euros when budgets are tight, have announced subsidy cuts in the past 18 months - a blow to the European offshore wind industry which employs nearly 60,000 people. This has led the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) to slash its forecasts for installed offshore capacity in Europe. However, utilities remain keen to invest in offshore wind - which the EWEA says is the fastest-growing power technology in Europe.

Pioneering new technology could cut the cost of renewable energy Image: © Fabian Bimmer / Reuters;

Simon Torkington
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For a 150-metre-high wind turbine standing in churning ocean waves, the forces acting on it are enormous. To stay upright, the structure is anchored to concrete and steel foundations drilled hundreds of metres into the sea bed. The process of securing it can take weeks, and costs up to $100,000 a day.

Now there’s a plan to anchor turbines in place using what is effectively a giant suction cup. Anybody who has tried, and failed, to attach their smartphone to a car windscreen using a suction mount might be forgiven their doubts.

The man behind the plan is Lorry Wagner. He built his career in nuclear energy but sees a big future in renewables. His Icebreaker project to site six wind turbines in the waters of Lake Erie in Ohio, has won $40 million in support from the US Department of Energy.



Surging demand

The innovation is being driven by a surging demand for renewable energy. Meeting that demand while keeping the cost of generation low enough to make the energy economically viable has always been the challenge. Suction-mounted turbines will cut costs dramatically. So how do they work?

Creating an underwater vacuum

The suction mount, or Mono Bucket, is a 400-ton metal drum about 20 metres in diameter. It is lowered into the water by a ship or barge.

 Mono Bucket

After the bucket hits the bottom, the water is pumped out of the interior and a vacuum is created, drawing the bucket up to eight metres into the sediment. The forces at work are the same ones that pull off your wellington boots when you walk through deep mud.

“It isn’t the stickiness of the mud that pulls the boot off, it’s the suction that is created underneath that is the main force,” Wagner says. “Same thing with the Mono Bucket.”

It is the combination of the drum’s weight and the vacuum it creates that makes it secure enough to support a huge wind turbine. If the Lake Erie pilot project is a success, the cost of renewable energy may fall as cheaper turbines pump out more power.

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