What If Oil Companies Used Their Expertise To Deliver Alternative Energy Solutions?

An illustration of the Hywind wind farm (Image credit: Statoil)

Statoil is one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, operating 34 fields on or near the Norwegian continental shelf, among its other global operations. Its expertise extracting fossil fuels has made it uniquely suited to innovating green solutions, as evidenced by its scale test of gigantic wind turbines off the coast of Scotland.

Jan Fredrik Stadaas, strategy & innovation manager at Statoil, explained:

“Sometime in 2002, people were discussing the possibilities for more offshore oil facilities, and they started looking at different concepts.”

It turns out that the hydrodynamics and aerodynamics for anchoring systems get more effective out at sea, though the idea is perhaps counterintuitive. There’s more turbulence the closer you get to shore and, when it comes to wind speed, it goes up the further away you are.

Stadaas joined Statoil in 2004 from Norsk Hydro to lead development of a business case for the wind opportunity (he’d been a wind guy for over a decade. The rest of Norsk Hydro joined him when Statoil merged with the company in 2007.

“It was a multi-faceted approach, so we had everyone in the same room working on oil & gas as well as wind,” he said.

“It was extremely important that we held our wind development to the same criteria to which we held our other projects.”

This made sense, except for the fact that the offshore wind idea had not been tried before.

“I spent my first year walking around with a PowerPoint speaking to different parts of the organization,” Stadaas remembered.

To keep the project alive, the team defined its biggest equipment need, a turbine big enough to harness the higher wind velocities offshore, in terms of what could be as close to an “off the shelf” as possible. This would simplify implementation, and make subsequent scaling of its supply chain easier, too.

The real technical hurdle was developing the pitch motion controller, which would use blade movement to balance the floating structures against variability in wind and ocean movement. Statoil developed a unique control system that automatically adjusts the turbine position in real-time.

The Norsk Hydro acquisition in 2007 augmented the team with serious wind experts, and then the financial crisis that hit the oil patch in 2008 whacked its progress.

“Statoil is all about big ideas, but that experience taught us the value of stamina and patience,” Stadaas said.

Structural tests in a pool were followed by a prototype test in 2009 off the Norwegian coast and, last quarter, the start of constructing a full-scale 5-unit test off the coast off Peterhead, Scotland (just north of Aberdeen). The Hywind Project will feature immense floating wind turbines over three times the height of the Statue of Liberty. Electricity will feed into the local grid, as well as charge a battery array on the shore, starting the 4Q2017.

Stadass is quick to credit Statoil’s approach to innovation.

“We have a long experience in developing big offshore projects with marine installations,” he said. “This experience benefits us as we develop offshore wind concepts.”