Time to Build Offshore

Guest Opinion

Robert L. Mitchell | Feb 06, 2012

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A recent poll conducted on behalf of the Atlantic Wind Connection found that over 78 percent of mid-Atlantic residents favored the development of offshore wind power and are willing to pay more on their electric bills for this clean resource. Clearly, a large majority of people wants energy that is actually clean and not just advertised to be clean, and fortunately they recognize they will have to pay more for this investment to achieve a more secure and prosperous future.

Despite the long and painful delays to the Cape Wind project, we have to keep in mind that creating anything new is most likely going to be painfully slow. Wind turbines for electricity production first appeared in 1887 with two professors acting independently in Scotland and Ohio. It is clear that we have to be patient. Over the years, turbines have grown larger, more efficient and more reliable. From 1998 to 2010, the average turbine capacity has increased by 151 percent. This technical evolution has played an essential role in making terrestrial wind energy a ubiquitous and affordable source of clean energy.

It was not until 1991 that the world's first offshore wind farm was built off the coast of Denmark with 11 small turbines, each just 450 kilowatts. Twenty short years later, over 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity has been installed. The vast majority of this capacity has been built in European waters, but the China Daily recently reported that China's National Energy Administration expects that China will increase its offshore wind power installed capacity to 5,000 megawatts by 2015 and 30,000 megawatts by 2020.
Danish turbine manufacturer Vestas will be installing a 7-megawatt offshore turbine in 2013. This giant machine has 80-meter blades. Not to be outdone, GE just recently announced its efforts to develop a 15-megawatt offshore turbine using advanced composites and superconducting technologies that could be a game changer.

Why is this important? Affordability. We will achieve affordable offshore wind energy and the economic development and jobs we need through better technologies, better policies and better execution. Offshore wind is on the path to large scale and cost reduction. As the turbines become better, improvements will follow in the balance of plant, manufacturing, construction methods, permitting and other areas. Each improvement will strip cost and risk from these projects.

The sheer scale of these machines is also a good thing for coastal states that want to revive local manufacturing. These machines are expensive to move. Building large offshore turbines, foundations and other components locally, close to where they will be installed, saves money at the same time it creates jobs. A study by the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium found that "the greatest upside opportunity for reducing the cost of offshore wind energy in Virginia is to attract major elements of a mid-Atlantic offshore wind supply chain to the state."

The Atlantic Wind Connection is another example of the power of innovation applied to the challenge of making offshore wind affordable. The project is an offshore, highvoltage, direct-current backbone transmission line spanning approximately 350 miles from northern New Jersey to southern Virginia. Over a 10-year period, it would efficiently connect up to 7,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines to the strongest parts of the PJM grid, while at the same time providing a new, high-capacity network reinforcement that makes the grid more robust, reliable and efficient.

Currently, offshore wind farms are connected with single-user point-to-point radial subsea connections to the grid on land. The transmission equipment is designed to move 100 percent of the potential output from the wind farm, but it sits unused when there is no wind.

By contrast, AWC adopts an integrated approach that links several strong points on the landbased grid to multiple offshore farms. This steadies the variable output of wind farms and provides access to conventional generation that can firm up the wind energy. Europe also appears headed in this direction. According to a report by the House of Commons on a similar offshore European supergrid, "An integrated network for the UK's offshore wind delivery could provide a 25 percent discount for the UK consumer on the capital cost compared to connecting each offshore wind farm with a dedicated radial connection."


Integrated offshore grids, advanced turbines, submarine cable factories and the other parts of the value chain that will provide affordable offshore wind energy are costly, long-term investments. It will take strong policy signals to drive these investments. Sustained policies at the state and federal level will provide the long-term demand that will spur investment in U.S. manufacturing and job creation and lower the cost of offshore wind energy. Weak signals discourage investment and place more reliance on imported components. This limits job growth and keeps costs high. The time is now to get the policy signals clear so that we can build a strong U.S. offshore wind industry.

Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine January/February 2012

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