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See Inside June 2010

Stringing Offshore Turbines for Uninterrupted Power

The problem with generating electricity by harnessing the wind is that it doesn’t always blow. And typically, consumers remain intolerant of power interruptions. But there may be a way to ensure a steady supply of wind. The key? Sea breezes—and a lot of wiring.

Willett Kempton, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration, and his colleagues analyzed wind patterns from 11 sites on the U.S. East Coast, from Maine to Florida. By wiring together hypothetical offshore wind turbines along this 2,500-kilometer-long coastline, the researchers found that the turbines could guarantee a steady supply of electricity. In fact, according to their model, there would never be a time when the wind wasn’t producing some electricity—and previous research by Kempton has shown that offshore wind power alone could supply the needs of these coastal states.

Of course, no offshore wind turbines exist anywhere in U.S. waters, so this exercise remains entirely theoretical. As it stands, the roughly two gigawatts of offshore wind turbines proposed along the East Coast are largely planned to operate independently. And the longest high-voltage direct-current cable ever laid spans just 580 kilometers. The researchers estimate the cost of the cable for this plan at $1.4 billion—15 percent of the cost of the 11 hypothetical offshore wind farms. Their analysis appears in the April 5 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

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