A Fresh Boost for Offshore Wind in the USA?

The US Secretary of the Interior has finally approved the Cape Wind offshore plan to build 130 wind turbines on the country’s east coast. But does this wind farm, which has battled on in the face of strong opposition, really herald a new era for wind power in the US? Steve Sawyer of the Global Wind Energy Council reports.

Could the waters along the US Outer Continental Shelf soon resemble various waterways in Europe and Asia? (Image shows Horns Rev 2, Denmark, courtesy of DONG Energy A/S).
Could the waters along the US Outer Continental Shelf soon resemble various waterways in Europe and Asia? (Image shows Horns Rev 2, Denmark, courtesy of DONG Energy A/S).

Despite the support of a large majority of the residents of Massachusetts, including those who live on Cape Cod and the nearby islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the Cape Wind project has been dogged by controversy since it was initiated nearly 10 years ago.

The offshore wind farm was finally given the go-ahead by US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in April and although it is not clear what further challenges lie ahead it does now seem likely that it will be built.

Located in the shallow waters of Horseshoe Shoal off Mashpee, Massachusetts, the project will consist of 130 wind turbines each with a 3.6 MW rating. With expected capacity factors higher than 35%, the wind turbines will provide about three quarters of the average electricity demand for the Cape and Islands.

Because it is displacing oil and coal fired electricity, Cape Wind will reduce emissions by nearly 1,000,000 tons per year and the plant is also expected to save consumers upwards of US$150 million a year from wind power’s contribution to meeting peak demand.

The project will also create more than 1000 jobs during the construction phase and up to 150 permanent jobs thereafter. The wind turbines will be visible – albeit barely – from some of the most expensive real estate in the USA belonging to a wide variety of pop stars and politicians who have not been shy about weighing in both for and against the project. It was also a significant issue in the election for the governor of Massachusetts in 2006.

But is this a one-off struggle, or does it signal a new commitment to offshore wind as part of the country’s effort to increase its energy independence and reduce CO2 emissions? Looking back on this decision in 20 years, historians will have a clearer view but my opinion is that it is neither. It is certainly a positive sign that the Federal Government has come down clearly on the side of clean energy, energy independence and creating a new industry along the US Eastern Seaboard. But if and how that can be seen as a sign of a broader transformation has yet to be determined.

Catching up with Europe

Offshore wind is not a new technology. Wind turbines at sea have been supplying the electricity grid in Denmark for nearly 20 years and total installations in Europe passed 2 GW at the end of 2009. But only in the last few years has the offshore wind industry in Europe gathered the support and momentum it needs to start growing in an organized way.

Offshore installations counted for about 5% of the European wind energy market in 2009 and that is expected to double in 2010, reaching a total installed capacity of 40 GW by 2020. By that point they would be supplying around 4% of Europe’s electricity. The current project pipeline contains 100 GW and the potential is truly enormous for the period after 2020.

For Northern Europe, in particular, going offshore makes a great deal of sense, due to extreme and increasing dependence on imported fuels, a strong greenhouse gas reduction commitment and a densely populated region surrounding the North, Baltic and Irish Seas. As a result, the area’s substantial offshore resources can help build energy independence, reduce emissions and build a new industry on the ashes of the declining offshore petroleum industry in the North Sea. The UK alone is planning 33 GW of offshore wind by 2020, and has initiated the leasing of 9 zones around its islands – the so called Round 3 project.

A strong commitment to exploiting these indigenous resources from the governments in the region mean that the necessary – and unprecedented – levels of cooperation seem to be forthcoming to make this vision a reality.

But there is no hiding the fact that offshore wind is still very expensive, with capital costs at least double that of onshore wind and a variety of engineering, maintenance, operational and safety challenges which have yet to find standardized solutions. The scale and standards will come with time, and prices will decrease, but we’re not there yet.

Expertise from the East

China is getting into the offshore business as well. As most of China’s best wind resources are in the North and Northwest, there is a desire to develop wind power closer to the major load centers along the country’s east coast.

China’s first offshore wind farm was commissioned in April; the 100 MW Donghai Daqiao project near Shanghai marks the beginning of the commercial offshore industry.

The first round of offshore tendering is expected in the next couple of months, based on development plans called for by the central government and developed by the 11 coastal provinces over the past year or so. The first tendering round will target 1 GW of development off the coast of Jiangsu province.

This is likely to attract bids from Chinese market leader Sinovel which is developing a 5 MW machine, XeMC which recently bought darwind along with its offshore machine, and a number of other domestic manufacturers and international players that are already established in the Chinese market. Although it is closed to majority-owned foreign developers, joint ventures will likely be formed to exploit this huge potential market.

Tremendous Potential

When it comes to the USA, there is no doubt that there is tremendous potential off the country’s east coast. One study by researchers from the universities of Delaware and Stanford, published in Geophysical Research Letters, determined that up to 850 GW could reasonably be developed in the Mid-Atlantic Bight area (between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras) in water depths up to 100 m (excluding shipping lanes, flyways etc).

Cape Wind – the View from Washington

The path to approving the 468 MW offshore wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts has not been an easy one, according to Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, but it will be the first of many offshore wind farms along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

However, the developer of the US$1 billion facility must agree to additional measures to minimize the potential adverse impacts of construction and operation of the farm.

“After careful consideration of all the concerns expressed during the lengthy review and consultation process and thorough analyses of the many factors involved, I find that the public benefits weigh in favor of approving the Cape Wind project at the Horseshoe Shoal location,” says Salazar.

Breaking New Ground

The Cape Wind project will be the first offshore wind farm on the US Outer Continental Shelf and will generate enough electricity to meet 75% of the demand for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island combined.

The project will create 1000 construction jobs and will be one of the largest greenhouse gas reduction initiatives in the USA, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 700,000 tons a year compared to conventional power plants.

The developer must also change the design and configuration of the offshore wind turbines to diminish the visual effects of the project and must conduct additional seabed surveys to ensure that any submerged archaeological resources are protected prior to activities that may disturb the bottom of the sea.

Salazar says “extraordinary steps” were taken to evaluate Cape Wind’s potential impact on traditional cultural resources and historic properties, including consultations with the aboriginal tribes.

By reducing the number of wind turbines from 170 to 130 [to be supplied by Siemens], the visual impacts from the Kennedy Compound National Historic Landmark will be reduced. The offshore wind farm must also be reconfigured to move the units further from Nantucket Island, and the positioning must be carefully considered to mitigate visibility from the Nantucket Historic District.

The lease will require the developer to halt operations and notify the Department of the Interior of any unanticipated archaeological finds.

Heritage versus Energy Needs

“The need to preserve the environmental resources and rich cultural heritage of Nantucket Sound must be weighed in the balance with the importance of developing new renewable energy sources and strengthening our nation’s energy security while battling climate change and creating jobs,” says Salazar.

“After almost a decade of exhaustive study and analyses, I believe that this undertaking can be developed responsibly and with consideration to the historic and cultural resources in the project area.”

Salazar disagreed with an advisory council’s conclusion that visual impacts from the offshore wind farm provided a rationale for rejecting the siting of the project. The rationale was that the effects on the view are not direct or destructive to onshore traditional cultural properties and the offshore wind turbine array does not dominate the view.

The offshore wind farm is 5.2 miles from the mainland shoreline, 13.8 miles from Nantucket Island and 9 miles from Martha’s Vineyard.

This could supply about double the region’s current demand for electricity, heat and transport, with half of that available in water depths of 50 m or less, and all of this could be done using existing technology. This is good news for a country which has spent about US$7 trillion on oil imports from OPEC since 1973.

As well as Massachusetts, the state Governments of Delaware, Rhode Island and New Jersey are all aggressively seeking to attract investors willing to establish facilities to revive the once-robust maritime industry and the region’s decaying ports. Projects off Delaware (Bluewater) and Rhode Island (Deepwater) are in development and could start generating electricity in the next three to five years. These projects do not face the same epic struggle as Cape Wind but they will have to overcome many of the same obstacles attached to ‘early-movers’.

Offshore Alternatives

In one sense, the USA does not ‘need’ offshore wind, because with sufficient transmission infrastructure the enormous wind resources in the Great Plains could theoretically supply the whole country’s energy needs and supply its appetite for wind power for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, building the necessary transmission infrastructure would be fraught with difficulties and would require a level of ‘joined-up thinking’ that has been absent from US energy policy to date.

Perhaps the investment in infrastructure, new industries and job creation sparked by an offshore boom would be a good bet as offshore costs steadily decrease in line with improving technology and a maturing industry.

The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has published several extensive studies on the integration of large quantities of wind energy in the country over the past few years, including its Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study published in January.

NREL developed a number of scenarios for this report including three that integrated 20% wind power in the Eastern half of the country by 2024 and one that included 30% by the same date, with varying degrees of offshore penetration.

The study found that high penetrations of this level were technically feasible and manageable, and that transmission and integration costs were moderate.

Notably, however, the scenarios did not include a price on carbon, although they did perform sensitivity analyses on the various scenarios with a carbon price of US$100 per ton, which changed the economics of the scenarios dramatically. The cheapest option was to import a large share of wind energy required from the Mid-West, although it raised questions as to whether or not the required transmission could be permitted and built in time.

It is here that the real question lies, not only about offshore wind but about whether or not it is possible to embark on a transformation of the US energy system at a federal level in today’s political climate. It is not just necessary to assess the impact on the existing energy system but to begin the transformation (which is just beginning in Europe) of the energy system as a whole to one which will ultimately be based on a wide variety of renewable energy sources, including large shares of variable sources such as wind and solar.

Such a future energy system would have a wide variety of both centralized and distributed forms of generation, along with electrification of transport and the integration of power, heat/cooling and transport to maximize the utility of those sources. But it would require coordination and cooperation between the various state agencies, regional transmission and regulatory bodies and the federal government, which is entirely at odds with today’s polarized US politics.

According to the NREL report: “…a major national commitment to clean, domestic energy sources with desirable attributes would be required”. In the absence of such a commitment it seems unlikely that the massive wind resources off the US east coast will be utilized to anything close to their potential.

About the author:

Steve Sawyer joined GWEC as its first Secretary General on 2 April 2007. He has worked in the energy and environment field since 1978, with a particular focus on climate change and RE since 1988.