If you’re wondering why the US is not ready to pepper the Gulf of Mexico with offshore wind turbines, that’s a good question. Hurricanes would be one answer. Nevertheless, the US is eyeballing the waters of the Gulf for a tidal wave of new offshore wind farms that would compete on cost with electricity markets in the region. That’s a rich plum indeed, when you consider the popularity of air conditioning in the coastal states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas — and the prospects for job creation as the US economy digs itself out from under the COVID-19 crisis.
Offshore Wind (Finally!) For The US
For those of you new to the offshore topic, in past years the US pursued offshore wind with all the swiftness of a turtle with a bum leg and one hand tied behind its back climbing a greased flag pole. While other nations have eagerly cast wind turbines into their coastal waters, the US has been painfully inching along. It currently has a grand total of just five wind turbines spinning off the shores of Rhode Island.
The relatively shallow waters of the Atlantic coast are easy pickings for offshore wind technology, but an organized wind initiative during the Obama administration ran headlong into the usual suspects, and was stymied by state-level politics.
Somewhat ironically, the wind logjam finally broke wide open during the Trump* administration with the full support of the Energy Department and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. A wind power free-for-all is currently under way all along the Atlantic coast.
The Pacific coast is a different kettle of fish. The Continental Shelf drops off steeply, meaning that the water is too deep for conventional fixed-platform wind turbines. Offshore wind development for Pacific coast states depends on technology and cost-cutting improvements in the floating wind turbine area.
The Gulf Of Mexico Offshore Wind Challenge
That brings us to the Gulf of Mexico. Like the Pacific coast, the Gulf is a less than ideal environment for offshore wind farms. Aside from the hurricane thing, wind speed in the Gulf is relatively slow, and softer soils present a challenge for fixed-platform wind turbines.
Still, last week the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory released a pair of reports, funded by BOEM, which aim at identifying pathways for tapping the renewable energy potential of the Gulf waters.
NREL lists the Gulf’s shallow water, lower average wave heights, and existing oil and gas infrastructure on the positive side for developing all sorts of ocean energy, including tides and currents, thermal conversion, wave power, and hydrogen conversion in addition to wind turbines.
Wind power beat out the other resources by a wide margin with a potential for 508 gigawatts.
According to NREL, that’s double the amount of energy currently consumed among the five Gulf states.
That’s a major smack at oil and gas stakeholders who are already feeling the pain of the COVID-19 economic crisis. Though Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama lag far behind other states in clean tech, they are book-ended by two renewable energy powerhouses, Texas and Florida.
A Green Economic Recovery From COVID-19
Aside from technology issues, the next big question is whether or not offshore wind can compete in the regional electricity market. NREL looked at that, too, in a separate BOEM-funded study titled, “Offshore Wind in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico: Regional Economic Modeling & Site-Specific Analyses.”
NREL and BOEM selected two sites in Texas and one in Florida for study, based on their potential for development compared to other possible locations in the Gulf.
The results were promising, though NREL cautions that the analysis assumes that wind turbines in the Gulf would be modified to account for slower wind speeds and, of course, hurricanes.
With adaptive technology in hand, NREL forecasts that some offshore sites in the Gulf could be economically viable by 2030.
NREL also took a dive into the regional economic benefits of offshore wind development and came up with this result, based on a 600-megawatt project at Port Arthur, Texas:
“…a single offshore wind project could support approximately 4,470 jobs with $445 million in gross domestic product (GDP) during construction and an ongoing 150 jobs with $14 million GDP annually from operation and maintenance labor, materials, and services.”
That looks pretty sweet compared to the handful of permanent jobs expected from the notorious Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.
Add the new NREL/BOEM reports to a growing pile of evidence indicating that economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will depend on a healthy dose of clean power.
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Image (screenshot): Via US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
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