When it comes to taking advantage of offshore wind power — a renewable energy resource that experts have identified as having massive electricity-generating potential — the U.S. is trailing behind Europe.
Way behind, in fact: Denmark installed the first offshore wind turbines nearly 25 years ago. But a White House initiative, building off the slow-and-steady work of state and federal projects, is hoping to get states moving toward tapping into wind power within our oceans.
On Monday, the White House announced that it had delivered a $600,000 grant to Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York to help officials in those states lay the groundwork for harnessing offshore wind power. The scope of the grant is itself modest — rather than supporting the actual planting of turbines in the water, renewable energy advocates and state energy spokespeople from Massachusetts and New York expect that it will help answer regulatory issues like which states will build the infrastructure necessary to set up the wind farms and which ports will serve as staging areas for the projects.
The announcement also included the establishment of an interagency working group of several agencies, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Commerce. BOEM highlighted two advancements as far as developing large fields of potential wind farm leasing areas off the coasts of North Carolina and New Jersey. Offering nearly 650,000 total acres of area, the BOEM hopes to put both locations out to bid for developers to use as wind farm sites.
The first lease sale will be off the coast of New Jersey on Nov. 9, where two sites hold the potential to offer up to 3.4 gigawatts of power if fully developed, according to the White House announcement.
In the midst of a renewed federal and sub-federal effort to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions leading up to an international climate change summit in Paris this December, environmental advocates see the White House’s move as one that will hopefully help the country take advantage of a resource that Europe has been using for nearly 25 years.
Not that it will necessarily kick off a wave of development — but people like Rob Sargent, energy program director for Environment America, see it as a nudging in the right direction.
“Is what the administration announced earlier this week enough? No," he said. "It will involve people working together and collaborating, which is good, and that’s what this grant will do — get states working together instead of competing with each other."
The concept is to take the same wind turbines that generate electricity on the flat expanses in the middle of the U.S. and put them in the shallow waters off the coast, where the wind is often stronger and therefore offers more electricity. The potential capacity is huge — in a 2010 white paper, researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that the “wind resource” available along the coastline and in the Great Lakes could provide four times the amount of electricity the entire U.S. grid produces. The number represented the gross wind resource, so it assumed large-scale development of all the untapped water the U.S. could take advantage of.
Sargent says that number has also been scaled back some since 2010, but hopes are still high. In its Monday release, White House officials estimated that offshore wind will produce 22,000 megawatts of power by 2030. That’s enough to power 4.5 million homes.
To this day, the U.S. has zero offshore wind power. It’s not that nobody has tried to harness the potential the technology holds — pilot projects and early stage studies have been done in several areas. One of the more famous efforts was the Cape Wind Project, which sought to put turbines in the water near Cape Cod, Mass., as early as 2001, but fell victim to an opposition campaign Sargent described as “well-financed.”
There are other factors that have stood in the way of offshore wind, like cost. Because the turbines are in the water, it takes some extra effort to get them up and running, Sargent said. But as Europe has continued to set up offshore wind farms — the continent now has more than 8 gigawatts in capacity, according to the European Offshore Wind Industry — Sargent said the costs have come down and the technology has improved.
“The vast majority of the cost is the u-front cost,” he said. “And it’s an upfront cost that’s an investment in access to a resource that has zero fuel cost.”
And the turbines have other potential benefits. Adding power generated from ocean wind currents to the grid can provide power during times when land-based wind power isn’t as available, Sargent said. A 2014 study from Stanford University researchers even suggests that large offshore wind turbine arrays could slow down hurricane wind speeds by 56 miles per hour as they approach coasts.
The U.S. is poised to get its first functioning offshore turbines next year, with construction underway at the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. The five-turbine project is set to produce 30 megawatts, only a fraction of a percent of the state’s total electricity generation of 828,000 megawatts.
Still, Sargent said, that project could be the most important near-term boost to offshore wind development.
“People just need to see that it’s happening, and that it works, and that it’s real,” he said.