The mighty winds that blow through Texas, Oklahoma and elsewhere in the United States aren’t as mighty or as consistent as the gusts out in the oceans.
But 13 years after the nation’s first offshore wind park was envisioned in Nantucket Sound, this plentiful source of renewable energy has yet to produce a kilowatt of utility power.
Now a Seattle company hopes to join that race by harnessing some of the fiercest winds off the Pacific Coast. Earlier this month, Principle Power got a nod from the U.S. Department of the Interior to proceed with its application to lease 15 square miles of federal waters near Coos Bay, Ore.
Principle’s $200 million WindFloat project would anchor the first offshore turbines in federal waters on the West Coast. It also would be the first in the nation to use triangular floating platforms instead of single piles driven into the ocean floor.
That novel design tackles perhaps the biggest reason why wind parks have yet to make a foray in the Pacific – a steep drop in the continental shelf that makes the waters too deep to secure fixed-bottom turbines economically.
Going far offshore also helps neutralize concerns about noise, harm to birds and aesthetic blight that sometimes buffet inland wind projects.
The platforms would float in waters about a quarter mile deep and be attached to pre-laid moorings. The entire structures, from water surface to the tip of the turbine blade, would soar about 600 feet – as high as the warning beacon atop the Space Needle.
Still, “We’re so far offshore, you’d have to really know where to look,” said WindFloat project manager Kevin Banister, who is based in Portland.
Five 6-megawatt turbines and platforms would be assembled on Coos Bay harbor and towed by tugboats some 17 miles out. They each would be spaced about a mile apart and are scheduled to begin generating a combined 30 megawatts of power by late 2017. That’s enough to power 8,000 typical homes.
Ultimately, Principle hopes to deploy its platforms in Europe and in the Pacific along the West Coast, Hawaii and Japan. The company tested its prototype platform two years ago in Aguçadoura, Portugal. That smaller, 2-megawatt turbine is now connected to a power grid.
To date, the Interior Department has issued five offshore wind leases, all in New England or in the mid-Atlantic region. The first – the Cape Wind power plant six miles off Hyannis Port, Mass. – has slogged through a 13-year legal quagmire fueled by opposition from local residents and businesses, tribal nations and high-profile critic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Yet environmentalists on the whole have embraced wind power as a promising alternative to curb greenhouse gases from fossil fuels that still account for 82 percent of Americans’ energy consumption. Wind is the third-biggest source of renewable energy behind hydroelectric and wood biomass power, accounting for 19 percent of non-fossil fuel power in 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Dams, however, can interfere with endangered-salmon migration. And wood-fired biomass plants are coming under increasing scrutiny over whether their carbon emissions in some cases make them dirtier than coal and natural gas.
By contrast, wind “is an incredibly clean energy we can utilize in the ocean,” said Mary Sopko, ocean advocate with Oceana, an international conservation group. “But we’re not really tapping in to that. And it’s a great shame.”
Offshore U.S. winds potentially hold more than 4,000 gigawatts of power, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s more than enough to meet the entire nation’s electricity demand. And some of the hardest winds blow off the West Coast, particularly in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
The WindFloat turbines would be connected to a cable to carry the power to shore. The line would be buried about 3 feet deep into the seabed most of the way, and then drilled deeper underground as it nears the beach to prevent it from being jostled by waves. Once the cable emerges from the water, it would be hooked up to a substation and connected to the power grid.
It’s the underwater power cables that most concern Bob Rees of Northwest Guides & Anglers Association in Tillamook, Ore. Rees said wind farms sprouting off the coast could potentially put vast expanses of productive fishing grounds off-limits to sports and commercial fishing fleets.
More worrisome, he said, is the possibility that electromagnetic fields generated from the power cables could mess up internal navigational systems for wild and hatchery salmon.
“They’ll need to study that in detail before a large scale operation is put in,” he said.
Banister, of Principle, said the company consulted closely with fishermen and environmental groups before it chose the spot off Coos Bay.
For its part, the Obama administration is eager to see WindFloat come to fruition. Principle has already received a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and is in competition for a four-year, $47 million grant.
Speaking in Portland earlier this month to announce her department will accept Principle’s lease proposal for environmental review, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said her agency felt a sense of urgency to help expedite the pilot project for a promising new technology.
Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management gained authority only in 2005 to issue leases for renewable energy on the outer continental shelf. And it was little more than a year ago that the Obama administration began opening up large areas off Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Virginia and other Atlantic states for offshore wind development.
Some of those leases went for $20 or less per acre, compared with hundreds or even thousands of dollars an acre that federal oil and gas leases command on land. Once a wind turbine begins producing power, wind farms owe the federal government annual rent. But they get to keep some 98 percent of the wholesale value of the potential revenues from the power.
That, Banister of Principle said, is as it should be since wind is free and can’t be used up.
“Wind is not a depletable resource,” he said. “The wind will keep blowing whether or not” turbine blades intercept it.
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