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Discussing Offshore Wind Farms, Hurricanes, & Long-Term Sustainability

“Accelerating the penetration of renewable energy into the national and global energy portfolio is among the most important technical and social challenges of our time.”

So says Andrew Myers, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, who also studies offshore wind structures and runs Northeastern’s Sus­tain­able Struc­tures Group. Myers was asked three questions (3Qs) regarding offshore wind, as part of a long-running column on Northeastern’s website. His answers delve into the wonderful potential world of offshore wind in the US, especially in light of the recent “steel in water” announcement made by Deepwater Wind late July for the country’s first ever offshore wind farm, Block Island Offshore Wind Farm, being developed off the coast of Rhode Island.

Like many clean technology experts, Myers believes that “transitioning from an energy economy based on traditional, carbon based energy sources … to one based on renewable sources … can cure many global problems, such as decreasing reserves of fossil fuels, air and water pollution, and climate change.” However, the transition isn’t going to be easy, and according to Myers, “will require the advancement of technologies for harvesting many sources of renewable energy.”

Unsurprisingly, given his particular area of studies, Myers believes that “offshore wind energy in particular should play a prominent role.” But it’s not just personal bias that drives his opinion on the matter — the US offshore wind industry has a potentially “staggering” amount of offshore wind generating capacity available. This was the main finding of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation in a piece written back in January, which suggests that the US has a projected 4,223 GW worth of offshore wind generating potential — with 50 GW alone coming from the Ohio waters of Lake Erie.

Andrew Myers agrees, noting that “offshore wind energy is a vast, largely untapped resource of renewable energy with enormous potential” in the US. In fact, Myers believes that “the potential resource is estimated to have a capacity close to the existing electricity capacity of the entire nation.”

Look at the Block Island Offshore Wind Farm, which will have a total of 5 wind turbines installed off the coast of Rhode Island. Those turbines are set to generate the equivalent electricity needed to power 17,000 homes and cut Rhode Island’s energy bills by 40%.

And that’s just from 5 wind turbines.

Of course, for a country as big and wide as the US, proximity to offshore projects will be beneficial, bypassing “the burdens of long-distance energy transmission.” But when you take into account the offshore capability of inland lakes like Lake Erie, these concerns become even less of a leg to stand on.

Myers doesn’t dismiss the concerns people have to “noise, the blight on pristine views, and the above-market consumers,” but rather places them in their relatively unimportant place — especially when “compared to the alternatives for generating energy.” Myers goes on to explain that, “while the locations of some offshore wind turbines may alter coastal views, the construction of a new fossil fuel power plant is also disruptive to the natural aesthetic.”

Importantly, Myers is also involved in conducting research into developing hurricane-resistant wind turbine designs — a necessary precaution for the eastern seaboard of the United States.

“We have developed methods to better understand the damage that may occur to offshore wind farms exposed to the severe hurricanes that can occur off the Atlantic coast of the US,” Myers explained. “These hurricanes increase the risk that multiple offshore wind farms may be damaged or destroyed if they are not designed for the specific conditions along the Atlantic coast. As such, we are characterizing potential damage to offshore wind turbines from high winds and huge waves.”

More than simply envisioning damage, Myers and colleagues are also working to develop “innovative approaches” to minimising damage to offshore wind turbines in the event that they are swallowed by a hurricane. Specifically, the Northeastern Sus­tain­able Struc­tures Group are developing sacrificial structural “fuses,” which are set to fail intentionally in the event of a hurricane, which are readily replaceable afterwards, and which leave the remainder of the turbine intact and undamaged — think of “an electric fuse, which, in the event of an electric overload, is sacrificed to protect more important components downstream.”

The future of offshore wind is promising for the US, and though it might be a slow start, development of innovative solutions such as those being worked on by the Northeastern Sus­tain­able Struc­tures Group are hopefully a big step towards a burgeoning and flourishing US offshore wind industry.

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