Endless Windmills In the Ocean Powering Our Cities? It’s Not SciFi, It’s Here…At Least in the EU

atlantic wind connectionFrom a distance they look like white toothpicks standing up out of the ocean. Up close they are towering engines of motion, whirring in the face of unforgiving gusts of wind. Offshore wind farms are a blossoming field of green energy, with trillions of watts of untapped energy flowing along our coasts everyday. Pioneering farms in the EU and China have already begun to harvest a small fraction of this power, and these nations have made large investments in capturing even more. Yet the numbers of watts available is less impressive than simply seeing these farms in action. They look like something straight out of a science fiction film. See for yourself in the videos below. Early success in offshore wind farms are powering the EU towards ever larger projects, set to supply a substantial portion of that continent’s energy needs in the decades ahead. The United States lags far, far, far behind, but recent developments may help push us towards tapping or own vast offshore wind reserves.

Apparently it takes years for change to blow its way across the Atlantic. While EU nations and corporations have worked together to build dozens of successful wind farms off their coastal shores, the United States has produced exactly zero so far. This is in spite of about 21% of the world’s wind energy being produced in the US. Look at a list of the world’s top 25 onshore wind projects and the USA is dominating. Look at the same list for offshore sites and we don’t even appear. Despite the great similarity between the two types of renewable energy resources, the US is lagging years behind the EU.

wind farms EU
22 of the world’s top 25 offshore wind farms are in this same part of the North Sea. The other three? Finland and China.

But we may finally be ready to catch up. The American Wind Energy Association held their annual Offshore Wind Expo recently in Baltimore, with several key figures in the EU wind community attending. Jens Eckhoff president of the German Offshore Foundation discussed the 250 million Euro Alpha Ventus wind farm that is exceeding expectations and produced over 190 gigawatt hours in 2011 so far. Maria McCaffery, Chief Executive of the British Wind Energy Association bragged about the continued success of Thanet, the world’s largest offshore wind farm. And there were many more European wind experts touting their recent successes. It isn’t surprising then, that US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar used his speech at the AWEA meeting to renew his dedication to offshore wind energy and promise that the US would propel itself forward to catch up with the rest of the world. The combination of EU encouragement and Salazar’s vision has been potent enough to get the press worked up. Mainstream media feeds and green energy blogs have been abuzz with speculation that American offshore wind farms may have received the kick in the pants they need to succeed.

Yet the opposition they face hasn’t gone away. There are two large obstacles to the construction of offshore wind farms in the US. The first is cost. While the technology behind these facilities has improved dramatically since Denmark first installed offshore turbines in 1991, start up costs are still considerable. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars for even moderate sized farms, and billions of dollars for projects that may put an actual dent in US energy needs. And that’s just for turbines. Several US companies, including Google, are investing billions more in the infrastructure needed to carry offshore electricity towards users on land. The Atlantic Wind Connection is an ongoing project in development to create a ‘backbone’ grid 15 miles off the coast that will connect 7000 megawatts of offshore wind to 1.9 million homes in the US. If you want billions of watts of power, you have to invest many billions of dollars, and while the US is ready to do so, the tough economic times have slowed projects down to some degree.

The other large(r) hurdle is public opposition, usually based in localities where these projects have been proposed. So far, only one lease has been signed for an offshore wind farm in the US. Salazar green lighted the Cape Wind project to much fan fare in last year’s AWEA meeting. Yet Cape Wind has also been one of the most vigorously opposed wind projects, with a recent documentary focused on the conflict. Why? There are some environmental concerns, largely around impact on marine ecosystems and commercial fishing. Perhaps more important to the political rhetoric however, the project could screw up the aesthetic beauty of Nantucket Sound. The Daily Show had a humorous take on that objection when it was first raised years ago.

Cape Wind moves forward with strong support from Salazar and other government officials, but opposition isn’t going away. The UK, Germany, and Denmark have all faced objections from vocal constituents to their many offshore wind farm projects. I understand some of the hesitation. While wind turbines are located and spaced so as not to seriously impact sailing and other ship traffic, clearly having no turbines would be safer (even if the risk is marginal). Environmental concerns around the wind farms include pollution from subsonic and audible noise, erosion of materials, construction waste, and service teams. When windmills die (and they eventually will) there’s debate over whether it’s better to haul the turbines back to shore or let them be used as reefs on the ocean floor. Then there’s the very valid concern that investments in wind energy, offshore or not, will not be as profitable or reliable as investments in fossil fuel efficiency, solar energy, biofuels, etc. Offshore wind energy is still being tested, and it would be irresponsible of me not to point out that its opposition has valid ground to stand on (pardon the pun).

Yet I laugh at the aesthetic concerns. I’ve seen traditional wind farms in person in the US, and seen countless videos of offshore farms in the EU and China. While noisy, I think these structures are beautiful. Absolutely so. There’s a real awe they inspire when you consider that these slowly turning turbines are generating millions of watts of power for people, seemingly with no real effort. Adding a few to the beach horizon is a plus in my book.

It looks like enough people in the US agree with me. Rumors are that Salazar will sign another lease for an offshore wind farm soon. Investments in the Atlantic Wind Connection continue to stack up, and valuable projects keep moving forward including a testing facility off the coast of Virginia, and a farm for Rhode Island. Manufacturers like Siemens improve the efficiency and cost of their turbines every year. While projects in the EU aren’t worry free, they have largely been successful. So much so that Europe is going to dwarf its current capacity by orders of magnitude in the upcoming decade with new proposed wind farms. The US can use that model to finally launch its own offshore wind energy grid in the next few years, and I hope it does. Water-logged watts from windmills aren’t worry free, but they make sense. There’s terrawatts out there on the waves! A gold rush is in order.

It may sound strange that I have favorite videos of offshore wind farms, but I do. These fields of turbines spaced hundreds of meters apart strike me as both futuristic and strangely mesmerizing. Here are a couple of very interesting looks at the modern offshore windmill:

Sailing through the Nysted Wind Farm in Denmark:

A great HD aerial view of the Horns Rev Wind Farm, also in Denmark. Is this music cheesy or fitting? Don’t know:

Here is a quick but cool video of the construction of an offshore wind turbine, this one at the new Alpha Ventus farm in Germany:

I’ll leave you with one last video, this one by Energinet, one of the forces behind offshore wind energy in Denmark. It’s the first short video in a series of clips designed to inform and sway the public. Propaganda? Sure, but well made, and well worth a watch. We’ll probably see similar campaigns in the US before offshore wind farms get the support they need to thrive:

[image credits: Atlantic Wind Connection, NordNordWest via WikiCommons]
[source: Atlantic Wind Connection, Alpha Ventus, Cape Wind, Dong Energy]

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