Supermajor Shell has taken a majority stake in the multibillion-dollar Emerald floating wind power megaproject being developed by Simply Blue Energy near the decommissioned Kinsale gas fields in the Celtic Sea off the south coast of Ireland.

The 51% buy-in to the special purpose company set up for the up-to-1 gigawatt project, the value of which was not disclosed, springs the catch on a development that will be instrumental to Dublin meeting its national climate target of having 5GW of offshore wind in operation by 2030, as well as being a fillip to the energy transition plans taking shape at the Anglo-Dutch giant.

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Change 'is from top down'

Emerald, to be developed some 30 kilometres to 60 kilometres offshore with “circa 15 megawatt” turbines on as-yet-unspecified semisubmersible platforms moored in 90 metres of water, is Simply Blue’s second floating wind project in the Celtic Sea, having brought in French supermajor Total to partner on its 100MW Erebus last year.

“The change is coming from the very top down at Shell – ‘we need to transition now’ – and as an early-stage developer with huge ambitions we are delighted to partner with the likes of Shell and Total, which are bringing so much experience from the offshore oil and gas and marine sectors in [to floating wind],” said Simply Blue chief executive Sam Roch-Perks, speaking exclusively with Upstream's sister publication Recharge.

Projects such as Emerald — which will start as a 300MW development dubbed Sirius but at full gigawatt scope would supply power to 800,000 homes, equal to the soon-to-be-shut Moneypoint coal-fired power station, the island nation’s largest — point to the “major opportunity for Ireland to become a ‘Green Gulf’”, he said, “by realising the benefits of its vast marine and offshore wind resources without negatively impacting our coastlines”.

What floating can do for Ireland will be absolutely transformative, in terms of decarbonisation targets and also in unlocking economic development

'Ardnacrusha of the 21st century'

Simply Blue director Val Cummins, who is managing the Erebus and Emerald projects, compares the latter to the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric station build in the 1920s “that not only helped to electrify the entire country but also switch-on the economic development engine of the day in Ireland”.

“Emerald is the Ardnacrusha of the 21st century,” she said.

“What it can do for the country will be absolutely transformative, in terms of decarbonisation targets, yes… but also in unlocking the economic development corridor along the west and southern coasts.”

Though the project is in its early days, it would add to a growing momentum to build floating wind and offshore renewables plant in the Celtic Sea, a basin calculated to have a 50GW potential installed capacity.

“We have gone through the pilots, Hywind Scotland, WFA [WindFloat Atlantic], Kincardine, the four French arrays, the 100MW-scale ones are underway, Erebus is going for a CfD [Contracts for Difference] in 2023, to bring the evolution of floating wind forward,” said Roch-Perks.

“The next step – 250MW to 300MW projects – makes total sense on our way to commercial-scale: It helps the technology evolve, it brings down the LCOE [levelised cost of energy] and bring on the local supply chains, which Emerald will.”

Emerald scope

Emerald, being run out of offices in the Cork docklands, will see assembly, installation and deployment of the first batch of “15-25” turbines for the lead-off development stage, “stimulating hundreds of high-quality jobs in the local supply chain… while long-term operations and maintenance will also require local skills and services in Cork Harbour for up to 25 years”, according to Simply Blue.

Shell offshore wind VP Colin Crooks said in a statement: “At Shell we aim to build an integrated power business spanning electricity generation, trading and supply. This project could provide green power to consumers and businesses alike and contribute towards [our] ambition to be a net-zero emissions business by 2050, or sooner.

“Working with coastal communities to create shared value is key to success and this is why we have chosen, and look forward to working with, Simply Blue Energy, who are rooted in the local community.”

'It will open floodgates of opportunity'

Streaming through the economic development prospects Emerald represents to Ireland is the potential for floating wind power to transform the island nation into a net energy exporter, fulfilling the government’s 2019 ambition to have at least 3.5GW for offshore wind energy production by the end of the decade en route to the country’s since-raised target of 5GW.

“The government needs this project to reach this target – this [build-out] is not going to come from bottom-fixed [offshore wind projects] in the Irish Sea. Emerald is a live, tangible opportunity, to get us there,” said Cummins.

“And it will open the floodgates of opportunity.”

Roch-Perks added: “Our shared vision [with Shell] for Emerald is to do the right thing for our stakeholders, the community and the environment. This announcement [of Shell’s buy-in] represents an important milestone in the ability of the project to ensure the government meets its [2020] climate target.

“Shell backing this shows government that [floating wind] is viable. Floating wind wasn’t real a few short years ago. Now it is. And Shell helps make it real.”

Emerald, Cummins believes, could also singlehandedly change the fortunes of the seaport at Cork, which though one of the world’s largest natural harbours has seen an industrial waning in recent decades with the closure of the nearby Irish Steel plant and Verolme shipyard. “Floating [wind] has the potential to be a game-changer here,” she said.

Majors make floating wind moves

Shell and Total are among a clutch of transitioning oil and gas groups entering floating and fixed-bottom offshore wind, a list that also includes Equinor, BP and Eni.

Floating wind markets are on the verge of explosive growth globally, with recent analysis from UK-based low carbon advisory body the Carbon Trust calculating over 70GW of floating wind could be turning by 2040 – a near-1000-fold expansion of the current global fleet – as international supply chains take shape to support development of commercial-scale projects around the world.

DNV GL, in its latest Energy Transition Outlook, forecast some 260GW of floating wind worldwide by 2050 but this expansion hinges on the sector reducing LCOE to €40 to €60 per megawatt hour ($50 to $75/MWh) from levels today that are three times as high.

(This article first appeared in Upstream's sister renewable energy publication Recharge on 27 January, 2021.)