Ever since the Block Island wind farm began operation 3.8 miles off the coast of Rhode Island in 2016, innovators, manufacturers and developers have been abuzz with plans to harness the potential of offshore wind’s consistent power. Last summer, Massachusetts was awarded an 800 megawatt (MW) offshore wind project, and it has just announced a solicitation for another 800 MW. New York has a goal of 9,000 MW by 2025 for offshore wind, while New Jersey is aiming for 3,500 MW by 2030 and most northeastern states are moving forward with major projects and plans. Today, there are 15 active proposals for wind farms along the East Coast, with more still in the works for California and Hawaii.

The possibility of all this new demand is driving manufacturers to think even bigger when it comes to wind. And that’s good news for composite suppliers. As turbines become bigger, manufacturers need new ways to create lighter, more durable components that can stand up to the power of the wind.

And when we say big, we mean big. Consider, in May 2015 an 8 MW offshore wind turbine prototype manufactured by Vestas broke world records by generating 192,000 kWh in 24 hours.  Today, GE is developing the Haliade-X 12 MW, a mega-turbine expected to generate 67 GWh annually at its first site in Rotterdam, Holland, later this year. Its 350-foot blades feature thin layers of glass fiber, carbon fiber and wood fused with resin. While the industry was still wrapping its head around the power of this vision, researchers at the University of Virginia began working on plans for a 50 MW turbine they aim to develop by 2025. Those blades will extend over 650 feet.

“It’s a whole new game, but that’s where composites are critical,” says Habib Dagher, executive director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. “Without really high-performing composites, you can’t get there.”

The Water Depth Issue

Dagher is project leader on Maine Aqua Ventus, an ongoing project to develop a floating foundation for offshore wind turbines.

Before delving into the concept of floating foundations, it’s important to first understand the potential held by offshore wind. Essentially, it comes down to the fact that offshore wind is much stronger and more consistent than onshore wind. There are other factors as well, such as the wind shadow phenomenon, where a turbine depletes the strength of winds downstream from it. But generating greater power is at the heart of the goal to move turbines off the coast. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) explains that the total offshore wind energy technical potential is equal to about twice the country’s entire demand for electricity. And with nearly 80 percent of U.S. electricity demand in coastal states, that potential is hard to ignore.