The Look of Offshore Wind
by Bill Chameides | October 14th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
Wind energy is a growth industry in the United States, with electrical generation capacity growing at about 30 percent annually. In 2007, we added a record-setting 5,200 megawatts (MW) of new wind capacity, and in the first six months of 2008 another 2,700 MW. As of September, some 20,000 MW of our electricity came from wind. But that’s just a piddling 1.5 percent of our annual electricity supply. What gives?
There are a number of reasons why wind remains a small part of our energy equation. One is simply historical. It takes time to remake our energy infrastructure and integrating renewable energy sources like wind is not trivial. A U.S. Department of Energy report estimates that it is possible to get 20 percent of our electricity from wind, but we won’t get there before 2030. (See report.) And going beyond 20 percent is going to require a major overhaul of our electric grid (see our earlier post on smart grids).
Another is economic. While wind energy has become competitive with more conventional sources of electricity such as natural gas power plants, some argue it needs to be even cheaper to compensate for its intermittent nature (see here).
One way to address this seeming competitive disadvantage is for the government to provide financial incentives. That’s just what the U.S. production tax credit (PTC) is designed for. The fact that Congress almost allowed the PTC to expire this year (it was renewed when the $700 billion bailout bill was passed) has likely hurt wind investment this quarter. The requirement that PTC has to be renewed annually is also a negative for wind expansion. The Europeans have gone with another approach that provides longer term price supports, and as a result renewables have taken off. Some states (like Illinois and Minnesota) are considering this approach (PDF) as well.
In reality, though, wind’s apparent competitive disadvantage is an artifact of the marketplace in which energy is bought and sold. The price of electricity from non-renewable, polluting energy sources like coal do not reflect the cost that pollution exacts on society (e.g., as a result of emissions of toxic materials like mercury and of greenhouse gases).
So, it’s not that wind is not cheap enough; it is that coal and other polluting energy sources are artificially cheap. They are effectively being subsidized by all of us by not factoring the environmental impacts into their price. The solution in my opinion is to configure the market so that the environmental costs of coal and other polluting energy sources are internalized into their actual price.
Another holdup with wind is esoteric. Those wind turbines are big -– and for many ugly, and noisy. Who wants a big wind turbine obstructing their view and buzzing in their ears? Not very many, I suspect, and I don’t blame them. The beauty of our landscapes and vistas is a precious resource that we should not abandon lightly.
One way of dealing with the esoteric problem is to put those turbines where we are not. (If a wind turbine whirls in the middle of nowhere, does it make any sound? I guess you’d have to ask the critters living there.)
- This simulated photo shows what a wind turbine would look like from progressively farther distances offshore. (Courtesy of Garden State Offshore Energy (GSOE), a joint venture of PSEG Renewable Generation and Deepwater Wind)
Placing wind turbines offshore looks to be a great solution.
Winds offshore tend to be less variable than over land, and thus have the potential to produce a more consistent source of electricity. (The downside of offshore wind is the need to bring the electricity back to where people live — an issue, but by no means a deal-killer.) And offshore turbines can have little or no impact on the esoteric as illustrated in the photo. As wind turbines move further offshore, they quickly become but a speck on the horizon –- hardly a vista spoiler.
While the U.S. has not yet developed its offshore wind resources, some of the largest capacity projects in the works are planned for such locations. The short list below shows projects planned off the coasts of only a handful of states. These alone would generate some 3,000 MW of power. Robert Thresher, director of the U.S. Department of Energy National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in April that developing offshore wind energy technologies potentially could provide up to 70,000 MW of wind power to the electric grid by 2025.
That’s a whole lot more and would be a big part of the renewable, low carbon solution.
|Project Location||Capacity (Megawatts)||Number of Turbines||Distance to Shore (Miles)||Expected Completion Date|
|Massachusetts||420||120||23||pilot 2009 (commercial 2013)|
|Massachusetts||Not yet determined||Not yet determined||3+||2011|
|Rhode Island||450||150||To be determined||To be determined|
|New Jersey||Phase 1 – 20
Phase 2 – 330