Offshore Wind Power's Promising But Complicated Future

Offshore Wind Power's Promising But Complicated Future

By John Connor Cleveland - October 29, 2014

The third in a series of articles this week on energy innovation and the American economy 

About 1,000 feet off the coast of Castine, Maine, floats an angular yellow structure, stark against the blue of the harbor. No, it’s not a buoy, although one might mistake it for such. It’s America’s first operational offshore wind turbine and, perhaps, a key milestone in the development of offshore wind power in the United States.

A fixture off the Maine coast since its deployment in May 2013, VolturnUS is a one-eighth scale prototype floating wind turbine -- or, a miniature version of the 300-foot tall turbines that ultimately may populate some of America's windier coastal regions.

Developed by a consortium of researchers under the name DeepCWind, the VolturnUS is the only operational offshore turbine in the United States, and the only floating turbine in the world. In June 2013, VolturnUS was linked to an onshore power grid, successfully harnessing enough offshore wind energy to power homes on the mainland.

To its creators, VolturnUS is the near-perfect child of necessity and ingenuity. Meet Habib Dagher of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, which spearheaded the project’s design. He is deadpan, but decidedly enthusiastic.

“We’ve had excellent results with the program,” he said. “The unit is essentially a floating laboratory -- there are 60 sensors on it that measure the motion of the unit, stresses in the unit. We compared the data to our predictive models and it turned out very accurate.”

This may not be the sort of analysis that excites mainlanders concerned with a marred view -- or an imagined raft of dead birds -- but it’s enough to lend momentum to the creation of more such projects.

In response to the success of VolturnUS, the U.S. Department of Energy recently signed an agreement to fund the design of two full-scale turbines, which Dagher hopes to put in the water by 2018. Moreover, in May of this year, the Department of Energy identified three Offshore Wind Advanced Technology Demonstration Projects, which will be eligible to receive up to $46.7 million each in funding over the next four years. Located off the coasts of Virginia, New Jersey, and Oregon, these projects are intended to address several of the more troublesome challenges associated with offshore wind power: cost, the permitting process, and, perhaps, aesthetics.

To renewable energy enthusiasts, offshore wind power is one of the most promising new technologies with potential to reduce American dependence on fossil fuels. Simply put, it refers to the construction of offshore turbines that utilize natural, high-velocity ocean wind energy to produce electricity. In the United States, there is roughly 4,000 gigawatts of unharnessed offshore wind capacity within 50 miles of our coastline -- enough to power the United States annually four times over.

“It represents a tremendous opportunity for our country,” says Chris Long of the American Wind Energy Association. “We have tremendous wind resources very close to many of our major population centers. There is a strong correlation between peak power demand and offshore resource strength.”

The U.S. has not yet capitalized on these resources, but many nations are much further along. Currently, around seven gigawatts of offshore wind power is utilized worldwide. This is primarily centered in Europe, with the United Kingdom accounting for roughly half of total operational global capacity. By way of perspective, a single megawatt offshore turbine can power more than 400 households over the course of a year.

Although the United States currently has no operational commercial offshore wind farms, at least two projects -- Cape Wind and Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm -- are in advanced stages of development. Further, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is well into the process of leasing additional offshore areas for prospective wind farm construction.

But expansion has been stalled by opposition efforts, some of it from unlikely quarters. Although offshore wind produces little pollution, the technology has faced criticism for other potential environmental effects -- particularly with regard to migratory bird populations. Coastal wind farms also have the potential to obstruct views, one of the cited factors motivating the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a coalition opposing the Cape Wind project.

Some of these criticisms may be misplaced. A recent U.S. News & World Report study places avian mortality rates associated with wind power as substantially lower than those associated with oil, gas, and coal. Further, projects such as Cape Wind appear to have cleared many of the legal hurdles they have faced, though not without a struggle.

To date, opposition groups have launched 32 legal challenges against Cape Wind, but Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers remains unfazed.

“Cape Wind has had more support than any energy project in the history of the northeast U.S.,” Rodgers said. “We have had opposition,” he allowed. “What’s been unusual has not been their numbers but their financial resources.”

Nevertheless, Rodgers says that Cape Wind is finally clear to proceed. The project is in the final stages of financing and is scheduled to begin construction in 2015, the end result of 13 years of navigating a comprehensive and lengthy permitting process among 17 different federal agencies.

The permit process for offshore wind is one of the primary obstacles to progress in the wind-energy movement. In 2010, the Department of the Interior launched the “Smart from the Start” initiative to accelerate development, but the process remains complex, and requires extensive coordination between state and federal regulatory bodies.

The federal process, at least, is prescribed. BOEM oversees new site development, which occurs in several phases. Even if a company is granted a lease, that’s only the beginning.

“Leasing only gives a company the exclusive right to issue a plan for the area,” says BOEM’s Tracey Moriarty. “After the lease is granted, then the company must submit a site assessment plan, then BOEM does the environmental assessment. There’s a five-year site assessment term.”

Assuming a developer clears these hurdles, state approval is still required. Offshore wind farms in federal waters need underwater cables to connect to onshore power grids. Connection implicates state permitting procedures, as well as state energy and environmental protection regulations, which vary.

“I think we have to do a better job explaining the job creation opportunities to politicians,” Long says. “There has been tremendous success with offshore wind in Europe and the U.K. -- it’s an established industry with thousands of jobs created and [it has] revitalized coastal ports.”

There’s also the issue of cost. European efforts have been substantially aided by government subsidies, and the economics of offshore wind technology remain dubious.

“There’s no question that cost reduction is a top priority,” says Rodgers. “In Europe, they’re working very hard on that. I’m convinced that, just as we’ve seen the prices of land-based wind and solar drop dramatically as a consequence of greater economies of scale, we’ll see that with offshore wind as well.”

In the meantime, developers might want to talk to Habib Dagher, whose patent-pending floating turbine represents a potentially game-changing innovation in the burgeoning industry. “The purpose of this research effort is to minimize the costs of offshore wind power,” he explains. “By floating the turbines you can prefabricate dockside and float them out. This will be significantly less expensive than fixed-based turbines.”

Still, Dagher urges caution, likening the economics debate to discussing the intricacies of the modern airplane industry circa 1900. "There is no ‘industry’ yet to speak of,” he says, “but I think we’ve got a good shot.”

Floating windmills may save money -- and offshore wind power may reduce our dependence on fossil fuels -- but the image of hundreds or thousands of skyscraper-sized windmills floating along the coastlines suggests dizzying effects on early-risers hoping to catch the sunrise.

Then again, one might view it as usable art. If you just tilt your head… 

John Connor Cleveland

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