Offshore wind power, a source of renewable energy that Europeans have been investing in for decades, has not yet materialized in the U.S. as debates have swirled about the viability of wind farms off the country’s coastlines.
That, however, may be about to change.
The Block Island Wind Farm is set to break ground in July off the coast of Rhode Island, and with it, the future of offshore wind in the U.S. seems very real. If completed, it will be the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., and if it is successful, it could prove that wind power generated by turbines off the coast is a viable enterprise similar to onshore wind farms, which generate about 4 percent of America’s electricity.
That could set the stage for other offshore wind projects all along the East Coast as the federal government expands the waters available for new offshore wind farm development. President Obama’s Climate Action Plan calls for offshore wind to be part of the administration’s goal to generate 20,000 megawatts of renewable power on federally controlled public lands and waters by 2020, a major part of America’s efforts to tackle climate change with low-carbon energy.
The offshore wind power potential in the U.S. is huge, totalling more than 4,000 gigawatts if fully developed — about four times today’s total U.S. electric power generating capacity and enough electricity to power about 800 million homes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s something that could benefit the many dense cities lining the East Coast, not far from where new wind farms could be built.
Europe has been in the offshore wind development business for years. More than 2,300 wind turbines twirl off the coasts of 11 European countries today, and the United Kingdom has just approved the world’s largest offshore wind farm. That project, off the coast of Yorkshire, will total 400 turbines across 430 square miles.
The 30 megawatt, five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, which will sell its electricity to the utility National Grid, will be small, but significant for the U.S.
“I think the Block Island project is a significant milestone for offshore wind because seeing is believing,” Bill White, senior director for offshore wind at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, said. “It’s going to be a big deal because people can touch it and feel it and see it and understand it. Until that moment, it’s not real.”
That’s especially true since the future of Cape Wind, a proposed 100-turbine project off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, had been a contender for the nation’s first offshore wind farm. That project is on life support after its developer terminated contracts to purchase land for support facilities without explanation and was suspended from taking part in the region’s wholesale power market.
But the future is significantly brighter for the Block Island project. The foundations for its turbines are being fabricated in Louisiana, and the project’s developer, Deep Water Wind, expects to install them in July. All state and local permits for the project and its electric transmission system have been approved, and the Block Island turbines are expected to begin generating power commercially in 2016.
“In order to begin getting policymakers, regulators and utility executives to take a good look at offshore wind, it’ll require ‘standing up’ a project so we can bring offshore wind from theory to reality,” Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski said. “It’s important for the industry to have a success. It’s important to have steel on the water.”
The federal government is in the process of giving the wind power industry plenty of space on the East Coast’s outer continental shelf in which to do so.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which manages wind resources off the U.S. coast, held the country’s largest offshore wind development lease auction in January for 742,000 acres of open water 12 miles off the shore of Martha’s Vineyard.
Two U.S. companies won those wind development leases, one of which is working with a Danish offshore wind power developer to possibly develop a 1,000 megawatt wind farm near Martha’s Vineyard after 2020, enough to power most of the city of Boston.
“What we’re going to see is experienced players from Europe playing an important role in getting these first projects off the ground,” John Rogers, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. “They have the know-how, they have the experience — the understanding of the potential for offshore wind.”
The BOEM is planning to lease waters off the coast of New Jersey this year, while investigating a possible new wind development area off the coast of South Carolina, BOEM spokeswoman Tracey Moriarty said.
The agency is trying to expand offshore wind in other states, too. Wind development areas were leased off the Delaware and Maryland shores last year, and the BOEM issued the nation’s first offshore wind research lease in March to Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, which plans to build a 12 megawatt wind farm off the shore of Virginia Beach.
More than 300,000 acres could eventually be put up for lease off of North Carolina’s coast, and in Florida, the BOEM has proposed four small wind energy leasing areas east of Fort Lauderdale.
For any wind projects to be built in any of those areas, investors need to see a project that works first, Roger said.
“If you look at the potential for offshore wind and the locations of cities all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, this is a technology we need to explore further. It’s great that projects are managing to move forward,” he said.