Offshore Wind: the 21st Century Frontier

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The several days I recently devoted to the Offshore Wind Power Conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, hosted by Green Power Conferences Feb 22-24, and then the few more spent digesting what I had heard, has left me a bit awestruck.

According to the Offshore Wind Power USA website, the conference was to focus on cost-effective design and installation strategies, but most of what we heard was what wind has and what wind needs. Many of the attendees at the conference were Europeans. They have come to see if we are serious about offshore wind. They believe it will eventually happen. Like a modern-day oil boom, offshore wind represents too much energy, too many potential jobs, too much potential development for it to be ignored. Their most important question: “Is it now?”

The response seemed to be given in Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s recent announcement to foster “breakthrough technologies” in up to 4 new offshore wind developement projects. But, at the conference, most of the talks included some reference to the EPA, Jones Act, DOE, DOI, BOEM or NOAA and about satisfying environmental and other regulations. This is particularly ironic….

Europe vs American Wind Development

American concerns are different from European considerations. Europeans are not as preoccupied with pristine beaches, rocky bottoms and deep water issues. Their coastline is geologically different. In Europe, there has been a strong drive to develop all available energy resources for strategic as well as environmental reasons. Jens Eckhoff, President of the German Offshore Foundation, told us: “not since 1998 has there been debate about the need to develop offshore wind (in Europe).” He was chiding us for our wimpy interest and crowing about German superiority in offshore wind development.

Europe has not been mortally wounded by negative views of climate change and it has seen gas and oil supplies shut off by foreign powers. Those foreign supplies are used to make European electricity. As mentioned in a recent post, American electric energy supplies are domestic, but the fossil fuel industry has worked very hard to slow the adoptation of clean energy here. We are in a different boat.

Cape Wind Legal Woes

Cape Wind has been the “poster child” for offshore wind development. Jim Gordon, as president of Cape Wind, has fostered the company through various legal, regulatory and civil suit hurdles for over 10 years. He was introduced with the joke that he was rumored to be nominated as MVP by the Massachusetts Bar Association. Environmental regulations are intended to correct or stop polluting projects. And so it is ironic that, once in place, that environmental sword can also hack apart a project intended as an alternative and, thus, help maintain our dependence on fossil fuels.

Offshore Wind Development as a “Whipping Boy”

The regulations that offshore wind power must endure act like a whipping boy or proxy for all future ocean development. Judging by the popularity of ocean and submarine movies, there are many who recognize our seas contain a vast, yet largely unknown, world: mankind’s new frontier that is far closer, with a long history, requiring less investment and perhaps more immediate returns than space. Offshore wind development is not only a major development into that frontier, but a test to see how we may limit or enhance that development with regulations. Imagine a space program with environmental regulations questioning rocket emissions.

American Rational for Offshore Wind

Offshore wind is expensive, so why make the investment? Europeans have had their answer for well over a decade. Should we, in America, “just say no” to new development? Some would have us move into the future by running hard and fast into the past. But as I have previously discussed, it may be more fear than leadership that drives such a perspective.

Offshore, we have more unused clear area for larger wind farms and much larger turbines. Connecting cables also have to contend with fewer rights of way than onshore. The air is less turbulent and the winds stronger. Overall, one source suggests that onshore wind tends to reach a maximum at about 30% efficiency with a 30% capacity factor (update April 26, 2012: new onshore wind turbines are achieving capacity factors of around 50%). Offshore, we may easily see 30% efficiency with a 50% capacity factor.

Forty-seven percent of the US population lives in the Eastern Time Zone. More than a third of the country lives on the Eastern Seaboard. Just offshore lies enough wind power to equal every power plant that has ever been built in the US (of any source of energy).

When we consider the Great Lakes region, the Gulf, and the West Coast, offshore wind potential is up to 4 times our present national power capacity. The economy tends to grow strongest on coastal areas. If we expect to not only replace coal-fired power plants but continue to meet growing energy demands, offshore wind is a massive resource that is close enough to where it is needed to fuel an energy boom and open the gateway to further ocean development.

The Correct Approach?

A simple approach would suggest that we eliminate all regulations. We risk being overwhelmed by strong corporate interests in such a case. We can proceed with multiple, and possibly conflicting, interests in regulations and vainly hope that somehow the correct path will open up before us while we dither seeking “technological breakthroughs.” Or we might look for some way to stand back and carefully consider the bigger picture.

If America is to be a participant in the world, not only of energy but general development of our ocean environment, our choices may not be as simple as “do no harm.” We may have to select the type of compromises we can live with: the harm we are doing now or the harm of alternative development. We may have to select which species will die and which will live… and then, perhaps like some native hunter, pray that we are worthy of the sacrifices we demand.

In the (above) recently released view of the night-time Eastern seaboard from space, we have an overall view. We can visualize our electrical usage and see the dark vastness that represents an unknown ocean potential. An American president once spoke to a previous generation of another challenge and said:

We choose to … do [these] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win….

If you haven’t listened to this speech recently … or perhaps at all, it is well worth a little less than 18 minutes of your time and, as you listen, look at the above picture, which is a product of that vision, and imagine that he is speaking instead of our vast ocean frontier.

Photo Credit: NASA

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