The federal government needs to reduce bureaucratic red tape and enact greater regulation if offshore wind power is going to develop in the United States, according to a new study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Six years ago the Obama administration set the goal that by 2030 the United States would get 20 percent of its electricity from wind power, about a sixth of which would come from offshore wind farms.
But while onshore projects in West Texas and Nebraska are booming, offshore has barely gotten off the ground. Last year the U.S. produced 162 kWh from offshore wind turbines – total electricity use in 2011 was 3.9 billion kWh.
The study, whose authors included researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Pittsburgh, found current technology and coastal winds patterns made the goal feasible. But erecting close to 9,000 wind turbines between 10 and 80 miles offshore will require an overhaul of regulations to incentivize construction of a technology that is about twice the cost of onshore wind.
“There needs to be a reason to invest in this,” said John Daniel, lead author of the study and a consultant at the Swiss technology firm ABB. “I think one of the things that would be necessary is for system operators to understand how they can share the benefits and in the costs, which vary region by region. It would have to be a national discussion in my opinion.”
The study envisions wind power primarily developing along the Atlantic coast between Boston and Washington D.C., both because of that region’s wind patterns and its heavy electricity demands. Significant development would also occur along the Atlantic Coast around Georgia and Texas’ Gulf Coast. The Pacific coast’s deep water makes development there more difficult, Daniel said.
Right now work is beginning on three federally-funded offshore wind farms off the New Jersey, Virginia and Oregon coastlines to be in the water by 2017. The small “demonstration” projects, which are slated to receive up to $46.7 million in federal funding, are intended as the first step in moving towards the 2030 goal.
But many remain skeptical that costly offshore wind projects can compete. Electricity prices have been driven down by the flood of cheap natural gas from the shale drilling boom.
Earlier this year Austin-based Baryonyx pulled back plans to build a wind farm across 41,000 acres off South Padre Island when it failed to win federal funding.
“Eventually offshore wind will be part of the picture. In the long run, the renewable energy price is going to come down and fossil fuels is going to go up. They’re going to coexist,” Wei-Jen Lee, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, said in an interview last year. ”The bottom line is it comes down to the price of electricity, and right now electricity is cheap.”
For policymakers, even with its sizable costs offshore wind remains an alluring possibility.
Land-based wind farms tend to generate electricity mostly at night, when demand is lowest. Out in the ocean, wind blows more consistently throughout the day. And while onshore farms tend to be located across sparsely populated plains requiring costly transmission to cities, offshore could be built adjacent to coastal cities.
“In the Northeast they’re importing a lot of wind. Building these resources could make them a net exporter. It could completely change the flow of power,” Daniel said.
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