By Michael J Coren
All the energy we need is blowing in the wind.
Off the coast of the United States, four times the generating capacity of today's electric grid--about 4,223 GW--blows untapped across the Atlantic to the Pacific. Yet harnessing this source of energy has traditionally been prohibitively (and politically) expensive. Europe's first offshore wind farms near Denmark in 1991 proved turbines could do it, but only at double or triple (or more) the cost of conventional energy.
Now New England is now vying to become the home of cheap offshore wind power. If successful, they'll lead the way into the country's rich stocks of renewable offshore energy: strong and steady oceanic winds. Thousands of miles along the Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island coastline are already potential "Wind Energy Areas" targeted by the Department of Energy for siting, leasing, and construction of new wind farms (often in federal waters about 12 or more miles offshore).
Massachusetts' Cape Wind project is already underway, but Maine is leaping ahead by building first floating windfarms for deepwater. A $120 million pilot project won local and federal DOE backing this year to erect four 3-megawatt floating turbines in about 500-foot-deep water off the Maine coast. It will be the first time such turbines have been raised in U.S. waters. Norway's Statoil will lead the project and expects power to start flowing within three years. A scaled-down model of an offshore wind turbine, the VolturnUS project, will also test alternative floating wind turbine technology in the Gulf of Maine in 2013. If all goes well, say its boosters, these pilots will lead to a deep-water wind-power industry worth thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in the U.S.
The key is cost. While Statoil has proved the technology's feasibility in Norway with the Hywind project, a 2.3-megawatt, $62 million turbine that has survived 50-foot waves and hurricane-force winds while generating power, it is expensive."The technology is proven," said Kristin Aamodt, Hywind's project manager, in the Portland Press Herald. "We know it works. But we want now to cut costs."
Statoil's goal is about 10 to 15 cents per kilowatt hour in a commercial wind park within 10 years, which would make it competitive with today's electricity prices.
That's possible, says Habib Dagher, an engineering professor at the University of Maine, who leads the public-private DeepCwind consortium pushing to make Maine the national leader in deepwater offshore wind power. But only if the new technologies achieve the scale needed to reduce costs, do not require extensive construction at sea, and receive government support typical of bringing new energy technologies online.
Floating wind turbines, Dagher says, could realize this vision. "The purpose of our program is to do it quite a bit differently than Europe has done it," says Dagher. "The idea is to cut down the cost of wind." Everything will be assembled dockside, without heavy vessels to install towers, and turbines will be floated more than 20 miles out to sea, where wind blows much stronger, and then anchored.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.