Europe has left the US in its wake when it comes to offshore wind development. There, over 5,000 grid-connected wind turbines border twelve countries’ coastlines. Eight more commercial projects are in the works.
Back in the USA, we have one active commercial wind farm. Rhode Island’s Block Island project has operated five offshore turbines since late 2016. Two more pilot programs are located off the Virginia and Maine coasts. But American offshore turbine energy production remains a tenth of Europe’s.
All that is about to change. Carbon neutrality goals set by this administration will rapidly expand commercial offshore wind development. In fact, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is exploring sixteen areas off the Atlantic coast where they may develop current wind energy leases. This includes areas from Massachusetts to Florida.
Projects remain at different developmental levels. Vineyard Wind, located near Massachusetts, gained final federal approval on May 11th, 2021. Stakeholders hope to see the project operational by 2023. South Fork, located in New York waters, has begun pre-construction studies. Meanwhile, other locations near New Jersey, Delaware, and the Carolinas remain in pre-construction planning. Some are listed as hypothetical future wind sites.
But why build wind turbines offshore in the first place? Some say these structures ruin coastal beauty. Also, construction is difficult and expensive. Capital expense costs for some offshore turbines are three and a half times higher than land-based turbines. Maintenance costs are higher, too, and more dangerous for workers. Meanwhile, the impact on surrounding marine and birdlife remains under debate.
Yet offshore wind farms pack a punch when it comes to quality electricity generation. The flat ocean surface drives blades faster via higher, steadier winds. Winds are more constant than onshore, providing more consistent energy production. And as technology advances, floating turbine foundations allow installations in waters as deep as 650 feet, allowing wind farms to move as much as 35 miles offshore.
Added to this, offshore turbines can be larger than their landlubber counterparts, allowing for more energy collection. In fact, the Haliade-X turbines built for Massachusetts’ Vineyard Wind project are some of the largest turbines in the world. Standing three times taller than New York City’s 22-story FlatIron building, the blades alone are longer than a football field.
Moreover, with 40% of the population living in America’s coastal counties, offshore turbines deliver energy where it’s needed most. This also means turbines distribute electricity to those most vulnerable to rising sea levels due to global climate change.
Offshore wind turbine projects can take years from planning to production. Stakeholders must cooperate with many federal agencies as site planning begins. This includes the US Army Corp of Engineers, US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Marine Fisheries Service. This is not a complete list. Additionally, projects must coordinate with any state agencies with jurisdiction. Such close scrutiny during development, however, should help calm some concerns over offshore wind.
The US Department of Energy estimates wind energy may provide 20% of the nation’s energy needs as soon as 2030. Local energy providers like South Carolina’s Santee Cooper concur, stating on their website that “the best potential for generating power from the wind in South Carolina lies offshore.” It has worked for Europe. Now it’s time for America to see the benefits, too.
Guest Author: Marla Keene
Technology writer Marla Keene works for AX Control Inc, an industrial automation supplier located in North Carolina. Her articles have appeared in Wind Power Engineering, POWER Magazine, and Solar Power World. Keene attended Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She is a former small business owner.
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