The state of California has announced plans to add a massive amount of offshore floating wind power to its energy mix. The California Energy Commission said on August 10 that it has adopted the recommendations of report that establishes planning goals of 2,000 to 5,000 MW of offshore wind by 2030 and 25,000 MW by 2045 — enough electricity to power 3.75 million homes by 2030 and 25 million homes by mid-century.
“These ambitious yet achievable goals are an important signal of how committed California is to bringing the offshore wind industry to our state,” says CEC chair David Hochschild. “This remarkable resource will generate clean electricity around the clock and help us transition away from fossil fuel-based energy as quickly as possible while ensuring grid reliability.”
The commission next will study the economic benefits of offshore wind in relation to seaport investments and workforce development needs. Its staff will also create a road map to develop a permitting process for offshore wind energy facilities and associated electricity and transmission infrastructure. The entire plan must be submitted to the Legislature by June 2023.
Why Offshore Floating Wind Is A Big Deal
Offshore wind has several attributes that make it appealing as a renewable energy source. First, wind power can take place 24 hours a day whereas solar power, by definition, is only available when the sun is shining. (There are some solar technologies that can harvest electricity after dark, but at the present time, the amount of electricity they can add to the grid is minuscule.)
Second, the winds offshore tend to be steadier than the winds over land. That allows developers to more accurately predict the amount of electricity that will be generated, which helps unlock investments. Investors prize predictability. Third, if wind turbines are sited far out to sea, landlubbers can’t complain they are blocking their view of the ocean and there are none of the NIMBY fights about land use that often affect land-based clean energy projects.
On the East Coast, the continental shelf extends many miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, which means ocean depths are seldom more than 60 meters. That, in turn, makes anchoring wind turbines to the ocean floor relatively easy — emphasis on relatively. On the West Coast, the continental shelf is much narrower, which means the ocean quickly becomes much too deep for turbines that are anchored directly to the bottom.
How Floating Wind Works
Floating wind power seems like a good idea in theory, but it is hard to do in practice. The truth is, the technologies to make it work are just now being developed. Rogier Blom, the leader of the floating wind project at GE, tells The Verge that designing a turbine that can float gracefully on the water is like “putting a bus on a tall pole, making it float, and then stabilizing it while it interacts with wind and waves.”
GE plans to use a so-called “tension leg” design, which uses a number of tethers anchored to the ocean floor. Working with partner Glosten, a naval architecture firm, the company is developing sophisticated computer controls that adjust those tethers in real time to compensate for high winds and strong waves. Blom describes the process as “see, think, do.” The control system’s sensors detect a change in wind speed or wave height, determine how that change affects the turbine, and then make adjustments to respond.
Other designs for floating wind turbines use massive underwater platforms to stabilize the towers. GE says its tension leg system will allow the underwater part of the system to be much less bulky, which will reduce costs. However, specialized marine vessels are needed to anchor the tethers and they are currently underdevelopment.
Tension-leg platforms are “innovative” and one of the most stable platform designs, according to Walt Musial, a principal engineer who leads offshore wind research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But it’s also very difficult to install, and prototypes haven’t yet been tested with a full scale offshore wind turbine on top, although similar technologies have been used for offshore oil production, Musial says. “We are excited about this project because this could be a common enabling technology to tap into [a majority] of offshore wind resources,“ says Blom.
Last month, my colleague Tina Casey reported on a plan by General Motors to install a floating wall of turbines in the ocean. With her own inimitable way of telling a story, she says the proposed device “looks like a giant wall of fidget spinners and acts like a giant energy-sucking sponge.” Sounds good to us! She also reported recently on plans by Tata Steel and Germany’s RWE to create an enormous underwater stabilizing platform for floating wind turbines. Apparently the state of Maine is also thinking about jumping into the floating wind space.
Creating floating offshore wind turbines will be hard. During WW II, the US military had a favorite expression that went like this: “The difficult we do right away. The impossible takes a little longer.” Floating wind may seem like an impossibility. The ships needed to install and maintain it don’t exist yet. Neither do the technologies to make those turbines float without capsizing. So why is California so optimistic?
Because it has no other choice. Suffering with extended drought, record shattering heat, enormous forest fires, and the threat of punishing floods, it either figures out clean energy technology or becomes unlivable. California is just a microcosm of what is happening around the globe. We either figure out how to power the future without resorting to thermal generation based on burning fossil fuels or billions of people will cease to exist. The need is great and there is no better time to move the clean energy revolution forward than now.
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