A tempest in the wind: Advocates say it's clean, renewable energy but environmentalists raise concerns
It is a virtually limitless energy resource, much of it located just miles off the Eastern Seaboard near major population centers. It is environmentally clean and, for now, completely untapped.
Offshore wind power could sup ply more than 900,000 megawatts of electricity – roughly the amount of power produced by all the coal- and gas-fired plants, nuclear generators and solar panels in the nation, according to a U.S. Department of Energy study. And it could do it without adding so much as a whiff of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Yet despite repeated proposals, not a single wind farm has been installed off the coast of the United States.
Onshore is another story. Last year alone, enough turbines to generate 5,000 megawatts of wind power – enough to supply 1 million homes – were built across the country, mostly in wide-open states like Texas and Iowa.
But erecting acres of wind turbines on land isn’t always an option, especially in places like New Jersey, where the wind is inconsistent and dense development makes siting such facilities a challenge. Indeed, the state is home to only one land-based wind farm, a small, 2-year-old facility in Atlantic County used to power a sewer plant.
This helps explain why the Corzine administration, as part of a major push to combat global warming by developing renewable sources of energy, is making a big bet on offshore wind power. The state has solicited development proposals from big energy companies and investor groups, despite daunting obstacles that include op position based on aesthetic and environmental concerns and, most of all, cost.
The state Board of Public Utilities is now reviewing bids by five developers to build a wind farm of up to 350 megawatts just south of Atlantic City, a $1 billion-plus pilot project designed to answer the tough economic, environmental and aesthetic questions that have derailed offshore wind farms in the past. A megawatt is enough electricity to power about 800 homes.
By 2020, the state hopes to develop at least 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, a target crucial to achieving Gov. Jon Corzine’s twin policy goals of having 20 percent of New Jersey’s electricity produced from renewable energy resources such as solar and wind, and to sharply curtail greenhouse gas emissions from conventional power plants.
The plan could lead to the construction of 300 or more giant wind turbines spinning hundreds of feet above the surface of the ocean. It also could lead to higher electric rates for homeowners and businesses.
“I think people would be willing to pay for it, but they will look closely at how they do it and want to see it done cost-effectively,” said Stefanie Brand, New Jersey’s rate counsel, a Corzine appointee whose job is to advocate for the interests of utility ratepayers.
OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME
The idea of wind turbines rising up to 500 feet above the Atlantic within sight of New Jersey’s beaches is already drawing opposition from some environmentalists and tourism advocates.
“It’s troubling they are planning to put a huge number of turbines out in the ocean in the absence of environmental assessments of what the impact will be,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, one of the oldest marine preservation groups in the state. “There also are some very hard questions about whether they are economical and what is the impact on ratepayers.”
Economics have proved to be the biggest hurdle to developing offshore wind farms.
It was economics that killed a plan last year to build a 140-megawatt wind farm off Long Island, when a study found electricity from the project would run up to two times the cost of power from a conventional power plant, said Kevin Law, chief executive of the Long Island Power Authority.
“While Long Islanders are willing to pay a small ‘green premium,’ the economics just didn’t make it practical at the time,” Law said. “Until the economics make better sense, it is hard to justify.”
Wind power advocates concede consumers will probably have to absorb a modest “green premium,” but they argue that with the recent run-up in power prices from conventional generating stations, wind farms are becoming more attractive.
“On Day 1, it will likely be more expensive,” said Jim Lanard, a spokesman for Bluewater Wind, one of the companies bidding to build a wind farm off the South Jersey coast. But, he said, “over the course of a long-term contract, there will be savings for consumers.”
Lanard and other proponents argue that as the price of electricity from conventional power sources continues to rise, wind will become increasingly cost-effective, particularly as technology improvements lead to lower development costs and greater efficiency.
THE MATTER OF COST
Even on land, wind farms can’t generate electricity as cheaply as most conventional power sources.
Utility-scale wind farms on land produce electricity at about 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, based in Massachusetts. And that includes federal subsidies.
By comparison, as of 2006, it cost less than 2 cents per kilowatt hour to generate electricity from nuclear power and less than 3 cents for coal-fired power plants, the Energy Information Administration reports.
Electricity from offshore wind farms is even more expensive, thanks to the substantial cost of anchoring them to the ocean floor. According to some estimates, building wind farms offshore can add 25 percent to the project’s cost.
Public Service Enterprise Group, a Newark-based energy company that owns the state’s largest utility, submitted one of the five proposals to build a wind farm off Atlantic County. The estimated project cost: $1 billion, nearly twice what it costs to build a conventional power plant that can generate even more electricity.
Even so, proponents of wind power say the future is promising, onshore and off.
On land, wind power is booming because while it may be more expensive than conventional power sources, it is the most economically competitive form of renewable energy. Today, wind power accounts for just 1 percent of the electric power Americans consume, but it’s growing at an average rate of nearly 25 percent a year.
The potential to produce lots of power without contributing to the air pollution that can cause global warming makes wind energy especially attractive to Northeast states including New Jersey, which have banded together to limit greenhouse gases.
“Offshore wind will become a significant and important component of our energy production,” said David Barclay, executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, a group that promotes clean energy technologies and conservation.
Not everyone will welcome such a development. Many conservation groups, particularly those aligned with coastal protection issues, fear states like New Jersey are rushing to embrace wind power without first assessing its potential negative impact on marine life and migrating birds.
And cost remains a major hurdle.
The cost of developing wind power has increased in the past couple of years as commodity prices for steel and other equipment used in building the wind farms has jumped, industry experts say. Another problem is a shortage of turbines, due to strong demand for wind power in Europe.
And for offshore wind farms, there is the added expense of specialized vessels to drill into the ocean floor to anchor the wind turbines.
“There are certainly engineering challenges being far from shore,” conceded Greg Watson, senior advisor for clean energy technology in the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environment. “Once you get beyond 60 feet (in depth), you’re pressing the envelope, especially with current technology.”
PSEG’s proposal calls for erecting 96 turbines 16 miles offshore in water some 60 to 70 feet deep.
But given the tremendous potential and private investment going into wind, Watson is convinced those challenges will be overcome, much as they were back in the 1940s when the oil industry first began drilling offshore.
“The resource was enough that they found a way to do it,” he said. “The same thing will happen with wind.”
It already is happening in Europe.
More than 600 megawatts of offshore wind power has been built worldwide, most off the coast of Europe in relatively shallow waters.
Europe got a jump start on the United States, in part because officials there have taken the threat of global warming more seriously and aggressively promoted the technology with government subsidies, said Barclay of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.
One of the advantages of offshore wind in the United States, particularly along the Eastern Seaboard, is that projects can be located close to areas where the transmission system has been built to serve large populations, thus lowering the overall capital costs, said David Giordano, a financial ex pert with Babcock & Brown, one of the largest wind developers in the country.
Giordano, whose company has an interest in the small Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm in the marshlands of Atlantic City, said developing offshore wind capacity is only a matter of commitment.
“Once it starts to happen,” he said, “we think it will happen in a big way.”
By Tom Johnson
13 April 2008
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