Energy companies and government entities are becoming bigger and bigger fans of offshore wind turbines.
As local and national governments look to find better renewable-energy solutions, the option of offshore wind, a type of wind turbine farm anchored to a shallow seafloor, is becoming increasingly feasible in countries around the world. Generally located a short distance from the shore in a wind-heavy, large body of water, offshore farms’ 24-hour wind source can generate a constant renewable-energy supply.
Wind power generation has become big business. The world’s wind energy market is valued at about $95 billion, according to Navigant Research. Wind turbine capacity worldwide totals about 430 gigawatts. The US wind power generation industry includes about 400 establishments that operate wind turbine farms and have combined annual revenue of about $5 billion, according to First Research.
Europe, now the leader in offshore wind power since its debut there in 1991, is currently developing the world’s largest offshore wind farm. The development includes up to 400 giant wind turbines off the UK coast that will generate 1.2 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 1 million homes.
The US also has its fair share of wind farm fans. In October the US will begin operation of its first offshore wind farm in Rhode Island. America’s affinity for this renewable energy source, aided by US federal funding and promotion, has only taken off during the past decade. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded $190 million for 73 offshore-wind project proposals since 2006. Besides Rhode Island, the DOE has granted funding for wind farms off the coasts of New Jersey and Virginia and Cleveland’s lakeshore.
Even with these efforts, the US trails globally in harnessing offshore wind power. To strengthen its standing among green-energy giants, the DOE released a National Offshore Wind Strategy in 2011 in partnership with the US Department of the Interior (DOI), wherein the two entities chose three offshore-wind demonstration projects as part of a $168 million initiative.
Rather than for lack of funding, the US lags other countries in offshore wind power primarily because its usable wind power is optimal where the ocean floor is unsuitable to anchor a wind turbine. For example, the West Coast’s Pacific Ocean breeze can generate a terawatt of electricity — 13 times the capacity of all the country’s land-based wind turbines — but California and its northern neighbors’ continental shelf plunges fast and deep off the coast.
The solution rests in borrowing technology from the fossil fuel industry and developing floating wind turbines. In this offshore technique, wind farms are tethered, or moored, by cables to the ocean floor but do not penetrate the surface. Norwegian energy giant Statoil ASA is already using its offshore oil facility expertise to construct a floating wind farm off the coast of Scotland and sees great potential for implementing these solutions on America’s West Coast.
Opening up development of offshore wind farms to commercial investors could make leasing Pacific waters near California and Hawaii a reality and decrease reliance on government funding.
Seattle-based Trident Winds LLC is already looking to build that first West Coast floating wind farm, situated about 15 miles off the Central California coast. This wind farm would link via one transmission cable to a decommissioned PG&E Corp. power plant. By using existing electric infrastructure, floating wind farms have the ability to reuse past plants and floating turbine foundations in order to minimize infrastructure costs. Trident Winds co-founder Alla Weinstein claims that this aspect is key to developing floating wind farms, which have been criticized by Bloomberg New Energy Finance for costing about eight times more than seafloor-based wind turbine supports.
The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management completed an initial review of Trident Winds’ request for a lease. The bureau is also forming a task force to see if there are other companies interested in competing with Trident Winds for the location. Despite this governmental action, fully authorized permits for this project and others may take years.
California and the nation cannot afford to miss their aggressive renewable-energy goals due to bureaucratic delays, however. In late 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that requires state utilities to derive 50% of their electricity from wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources — up from the 20% requirement now. As of 2015 the DOE also increased high expectations for renewable-energy implementation. The DOE predicted wind energy to jump from its current 4.5% current state of electricity generation to 10% by 2020. The department boosted that goal with the objective of supplying 35% of the nation’s energy by wind power by 2030.
In addition to initial cost concerns, wind power does have its drawbacks. Fishermen and conservationists worry that these projects may disrupt the lives and migratory patterns of marine mammals, fish, and seabirds. Residents near the projects also dislike the wind farms’ minimal aesthetic appeal, particularly when turbines are located less than a dozen miles from shore. Wind projects have also traditionally been majority-funded by government entities, which can lengthen the approval process.
Despite the drawbacks inherent with developing and funding wind power, offshore-wind technology is still in its infancy. What will fuel growth of this renewable-energy source is the industry’s ability to drive down costs, boost megawatt output, and open the door to eager energy investors.
Leah Pepper is a Global Content Intern based out of Austin, TX. Leah is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, pursuing her bachelor degrees in economics and public relations.