In a few months Fukushima will have something positive to balance out its notoriety as the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters. A little distance out into the ocean from the city, the Japanese are putting up a huge 7 MW wind turbine — as yet the world’s biggest. The Japanese expect this project to showcase their resilience as a nation. But the machine will also send out another message — the time to take offshore wind seriously has come.

It certainly has come to India. Last week, the Cabinet formally approved the National Offshore Wind Energy Policy, which had lived on the shelves as a draft for two years. It was a milestone event, for it brings to fruition a process that began in 1992 — the year when Dr L R Chary wrote a report pointing out the prospects of offshore wind.

Chary, then a General Manager of the Shipping Corporation of India, got the idea when he noticed ships carrying Sri Lankan refugees back home plying alongside escort naval vessels on the way up, but lagging behind on the way back. If wind and sea currents could move large ships, can they not turn wind turbines? Offshore wind was a novel concept even globally (the first offshore installation happened in 1991.)

The policy is finally approved. The field is now technically open for players to enter. Malolan Cadambi, founder of Greenshore Energy Pvt Ltd, who has for long lobbied for an offshore wind policy, says the potential is practically limitless. India has exclusive economic zone of 2.3 million sq km—an area that is slightly bigger than Saudi Arabia. All of it belongs to the Government of India and there is no ‘land acquisition’ hassle. With today’s technologies, a wind turbine can be put on a floating platform, and can be towed around. So an offshore wind farm can come up anywhere, though the first ones will come up in the not-so-deep near shore regions. The southern coasts of the peninsula and Gujarat are the most promising, says Chary, who retired a few years ago as an Executive Director at SCI.

Land apart, ‘offshore wind’ smarts with a number of positives. The machines can be very big—6 MW is becoming the norm, and bigger machines are in the works—mainly because the long blades can be made on the coast and shipped to site, a luxury the land-based wind projects do not have. The machines, however, cost a lot more— ₹20 crore a MW, compared with ₹6.5 crore for an onshore machine—but since winds blow harder and for longer hours, power generation is more than twice as much as onshore. Further, you could bring down costs by intercrop floating solar farms and use the same cables to transmit power.

Still, offshore farms produce costly power today—around ₹12 a kWhr, according to Greenshore Energy’s calculations, off Tamil Nadu coast, and ₹17 off Gujarat’s—roughly where solar was in 2012. Ravi Parthasarathy, Advisor, International Seaport Dredging, part of DEME, a Belgian group with experience in offshore wind, feels that cost reductions should be visible in 5-6 years. While in 10 years offshore wind energy will become “absolutely affordable”. With indigenisation, scale and perhaps hybriding with solar, costs will come down, says Cadambi.

But for indigenisation and scale to kick-in, somebody has to take the first plunge. Who?

NTPC gets into the act

As in the case of solar, the government is getting the public sector power major, NTPC, to tee off. NTPC, through a MoU last year, has formed a consortium with a clutch of other public sector power companies (PGCIL, PTC, PFC, IREDA) to put up the first offshore projects. Shipping Corporation of India is also interested in the pilot programme of 100 MW, coming up off the Gujarat coast. SCI’s Director-Technical & Offshore Services, Captain K Devdas, says the company is the only PSU with offshore experience, and can chip in with installation of structures and with logistics.

Assuming the NTPC consortium will be the first investor, the big question is, who will buy the costly power? Nobody questions the potential. Tulsi Tanti, Chairman and Managing Director, Suzlon, India’s leading turbine maker, says the company “already identified 1,000 MW of potential area in the Kutch coast,” but the industry is cynical about realisation of the potential. “There is huge potential alright, but who will buy the power,” asks Madhusudhan Khemka, Chairman of the wind turbine manufacturer, ReGen Powertech and Chairman, Indian Wind Turbine Manufacturers’ Association. Khemka believes offshore wind has still “a long way to go.”

At the moment, the question ‘who will buy’ hangs in the balance, but one might conjecture that NTPC could bundle the costly power with cheaper electricity from coal—as has happened in the case of solar.

Once the investor and buyer issues are settled, it looks like the vehicle will start rolling. The Defence is understood to have no problems as long as Chinese equipment are not used. The fishermen community has welcomed it because wind towers could double as telecom towers, and they could stay connected even while at sea. Where the windmills stand on the sea-bed, they would create reefs for fish to breed.

Global scenario

The world has about 9,000 MW of offshore wind power capacity, 90 per cent of which is in the Baltic and North Seas, more than half belongs to the UK. “Offshore wind is relatively new, hence costs will come down and technology will improve,” says the Global Wind Energy Council.