Offshore wind power is common in many parts of the world, but not in North America. The reason for that is partly politics and partly geography. On America’s west coast, the continental shelf falls off rapidly, making anchoring wind turbine platforms to the seabed a difficult and expensive process. Elsewhere, there is strong opposition to wind turbines that break up the natural beauty of the ocean. Putting turbines far out to sea where they are below the horizon increases the cost of running the undersea cables needed to bring electricity onshore. In all of the US, only Block Island, Rhode Island has a functioning offshore wind power system.
Governor Jerry Brown of California is interested in developing floating wind power installations off the coast of his state. Just before he left to attend the COP23 climate summit in Bonn, Germany earlier this month, he met with Bjørn Otto Sverdrup, senior vice president for corporate sustainability for Statoil, the Norwegian energy company majority owned by the national government. “It’s great, all that wind blowing, if we can get it, if the price is right, if the technology is there, if we can get through appropriate analysis,” Brown told Axios while in Bonn. “I think it may have real potential, but there’s lots of issues there.”
Statoil is betting heavily on floating offshore wind farms. It opened the first in the world off the coast of Scotland earlier this year. That installation is expected to power up to 20,000 homes. But wind power experts say the potential for wind turbines along both coasts of the US could be enormous — up to one terawatt of electricity, which is thirteen times the total of all the wind farms currently operational in America. In 2016, Governor Brown asked the US Department of the Interior to work with the state to assess potential sites for offshore wind installations.
Statoil applied to lease 56 square miles of ocean off Morro Bay, California — an area known for its constant winds — in 2016. Last year, the company applied to the US government for a lease of nearly 56 square miles at Morro Bay. Trident Winds, headquartered in Seattle, also is considering the Morro Bay area, which is about halfway between Carmel and Santa Barbara, for the site of 100 floating wind turbines 33 miles offshore. The target date for that project is 2025.
Delaware’s Governor John Carney is also investigating offshore wind power for his state. The continental shelf off the east coast of the US is relatively shallow, which makes building conventional wind turbines anchored to the ocean floor more feasible. That state’s Offshore Wind Working Group is holding public hearings and will submit its report before the end of the year. Members of the group are trying to determine if offshore wind power would benefit Delaware residents or whether purchasing renewable energy from neighboring states would be more cost effective.
Delaware gets most of its electricity from burning coal or natural gas. “Environmentally, whether Delaware builds anything or not, renewable energy will start displacing coal and uneconomical plants will be phased out,” says Drew Slater, a member of the Offshore Wind Working Group.