One indication that the world’s offshore wind sector is poised to soar is the escalating competition between turbine makers. This April, General Electric (GE)—the world’s second-largest manufacturer of wind turbines—announced it would introduce a 4-MW gearless wind turbine (a design requiring no gearbox between turbine and generator) in 2012. The move directly challenges market leader Siemens Energy, of Germany, and its head-to-head competitor, Denmark’s Vestas Wind Systems.

The U.S. company acquired the technology last August, when it took over the ScanWind unit of Sweden’s Morphic Technologies. As the largest wind turbine in GE’s fleet, it will incorporate advanced drive train and control technologies gained through GE’s acquisition of ScanWind, the company said. The technology is already being demonstrated at a test site in Hundhammerfjellet, Norway, where the first ScanWind direct drive unit has been operating for more than five years (Figure 2).

2. In high gear. GE in April said it would introduce a 4-MW gearless offshore wind turbine in 2012, which is based on a technology acquired from Swedish company ScanWind. The technology is already being demonstrated at a test site in Hundhammerfjellet, Norway, where the first ScanWind direct drive unit has been operating for more than five years, GE said. The new turbine is expected to up the ante for companies vying for market share in the world’s soaring offshore wind sector. Courtesy: GE

Direct drive or gearless turbines accounted for some 14% of installed offshore capacity in 2009 at offshore wind parks owned by Germany’s Enercon and Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co. of China, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The technology essentially reduces the number of moving parts in a unit, helping to increase reliability and minimizing costly open-sea maintenance. Siemens, which already holds about 6% of the overall offshore model market, will this year put up as many as 10 of its new gearless 3-MW turbines onshore and offshore—and it plans to start large-scale production in 2011.

But gearless technology isn’t the be-all and end-all of the offshore market. Vestas, which hasn’t yet indicated whether it will develop a gearless turbine, will this year roll out its V112, a 3-MW offshore wind turbine that it says can generate more power than any other turbine in the 3-MW class.

And the competition is only set to get tougher as ambitions to capture large chunks of the lucrative offshore segment heat up. Investment in ocean-based wind turbines will rise about 30% this year, to $3.9 billion, outpacing growth of less than 10% onshore, Bloomberg estimated in April. Driving the rapid progression in offshore wind turbine technology are government incentives and the economic slowdown, which has adversely affected the onshore sector. Directly driving competition is pricing: Companies are striving to push down costs while improving performance and keeping pressure on margins.

Meanwhile, several companies are looking to demonstrate the technical feasibility of their new technologies. This January, for example, AREVA—a well-known nuclear brand—made its foray into the offshore wind market when six 5-MW M5000 turbines manufactured by its recently acquired German subsidiary Multibrid were installed and commissioned at the 60-MW Alpha Ventus wind park. That project—Germany’s first offshore wind park—officially began in April. Developed by a consortium of major industry players such as E.ON and Vattenfall Europe, it also features six pilot 5-MW REpower turbines. AREVA told POWER that the project was integral to helping the company reach its goal of capturing 25% of the world’s offshore wind market.