Newsbrief Archive

Electric Currents News - October 2016

Federal Government Commits to Offshore Wind Power

The United States is getting serious about developing offshore wind farms as a significant source of electric power. In the past, limited government support and the inability to compete with traditional power generation, along with the high costs of wind technology, have stagnated efforts in this area.

On Sept. 9, the US Departments of Energy and the Interior officially launched the National Offshore Wind Energy Strategy, an extensive plan to develop a viable nationwide offshore wind industry. The goal is to have 20 percent of the nation’s electricity generated through wind power by 2030.

That would represent a significant leap. In 2015, wind energy supplied less than 5 percent of the country’s electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

In the 84-page National Offshore Wind Energy Strategy report, it is estimated that the “total offshore wind energy technical potential is equal to about double the nation’s demand for electricity.”

First Offshore Wind Farm Set to Go

At the present time, there is just one American offshore wind farm, a small, five-turbine system located off Block Island, R.I. It cost $290 million to build and install, and is scheduled to go on-line by the end of 2016.

By comparison, some European wind farms have as many as 130 turbines. 

The 30-megawatt Block Island project will supply electricity to the region’s electrical grid, providing enough energy to power 17,000 homes, including all of those on the island.

Another New England state, Massachusetts, has taken steps to promote offshore wind energy, recently passing a law that will require electric utilities to purchase up to 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind-generated electricity over the next 10 years.

More offshore wind farms are on the horizon. In the past year, the Department of the Interior has awarded 11 commercial leases for offshore wind development. When operational, these wind farms could produce nearly 15 gigawatts of electricity.

Why Wind Energy?

The winds over coastal waters are strong and steady, making this an ideal location for turbines. There are several other strategic advantages associated with offshore wind turbines. The National Offshore Wind Energy Strategy report points out that “almost 80 percent of US electricity demand is located in coastal states” and wind energy “provides an alternative to long-distance transmission or development of electricity generation.”

The report states that “offshore wind farms could produce energy at low, long-term fixed costs, which can reduce electricity prices and improve energy security by providing a hedge against fossil fuel price volatility.”

The other obvious advantage is a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since no fuels are burned.

Barriers

One of main barriers to offshore wind farms is push-back from people living in adjacent communities. There have been complaints about aesthetics of the local skyline as well as noise and vibration issues.

Disruption of wildlife is another concern, particularly for birds and bats. It is estimated that wind turbines kill about 300,000 birds annually, although this is considered to be relatively low when compared to other hazards. For example, each year there are 6.8 million bird deaths attributed to collisions with cell phone and radio towers.

The major obstacle, however, remains cost. Wind turbines are expensive and have lengthy pay-back periods. Although the price for wind turbines has decreased by more than 90 percent since the 1980s, according to Department of Energy, construction and maintenance of a wind farm is still an expensive proposition.

That is likely to change as the technology, for equipment and siting, matures. In a Sept. 10 Christian Science Monitor story, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz pointed out that “not long ago [rooftop solar] was $10 per watt. Today, it’s a bit below $4 per watt. Out of those savings, $2 to $3 is technology.”

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