After much delay, offshore wind power set to sail
If the Cape Wind project soon becomes reality, a wind farm could look like the one above. | Reuters
It’s been 12 years since the first offshore U.S. wind farm was proposed for the Massachusetts Nantucket Sound, but so far, not a single turbine has been put up. The struggles to get the Cape Wind project built stand in stark contrast to the torrid growth of the U.S.’s onshore wind industry — and the success of offshore wind in Europe.
But now advocates are pointing to recent developments that they say show the offshore wind industry is on the cusp of turning into a full-force gale.
Cape Wind will consist of 130 turbines across 24 square miles in the Sound and provide up to 468 megawatts of power, about the same as a modest-sized natural gas power plant.
For years, locals have fought the project, contending it would be an eyesore from the shores of wealthy enclaves on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. Such opposition made strange bedfellows of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and oil billionaire Bill Koch, who has funneled millions into a local alliance opposing Cape Wind.
Cape Wind also has had to navigate its way through a quagmire of local, state and federal permitting issues — not to mention lawsuits alleging the 440-foot turbines will be too close to shipping lanes, threaten birds and pose a danger to aircraft.
All these delays have come even as onshore wind in the U.S. has expanded rapidly. Since 2005, when Cape Wind first sought a lease, onshore wind has jumped from less than 10 gigawatts of installed capacity to more than 60 gigawatts today. In Europe, offshore wind today totals five gigawatts, according to the European Wind Energy Association.
Now it appears that Cape Wind may soon be a reality. The developers are in the final stages of securing financing and expect to begin construction by the end of 2013 — a benchmark they must meet to qualify for a crucial tax credit. The project is expected to be completed by 2016.
Meanwhile, several other sites along the Atlantic Coast look ripe for wind projects, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has identified areas off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
It’s not yet clear how well those “wind energy areas” will perform in the nascent market. Critics argue offshore wind power is expensive, and that will deter investors. The Interior Department in October 2012 signed a lease with a developer for a wind farm in the waters off Delaware, but the project has sputtered over financing and power supply contract issues.
Still, the Obama administration sees a future for offshore wind and is vowing to hold the first lease sale for an area off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts in late July. “We’re optimistic with this lease sale that we’ll see some action,” Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell said, while noting it is “up to industry to decide the time frame on which they choose to develop wind energy resources.”
The absence of a working offshore wind farm hasn’t dampened hopes to build a network of power lines to link the prospective sites. In an “If you build it, they will come” mentality, a company backed by Google has been working to permit the Atlantic Wind Connection, a six-gigawatt offshore transmission backbone that would run from northern New Jersey to Norfolk, Va.
The current slate of offshore wind projects could soon find themselves lagging new technology, as researchers work to develop turbines that float or hover in the air. In May, University of Maine researchers launched the first grid-connected floating turbine (with the help of $12 million from the Energy Department). The one-eighth scale prototype has a 20-kilowatt capacity; most turbines rate in the multiple-megawatt range.
Google, meanwhile, recently purchased Makani Power, a start-up developing kite-like airborne turbines that stretch up to high-altitude winds — which tend to be stronger and more stable than ground-level gusts — and don’t need costly towers.