Galveston may get a massive offshore wind project, feds say
Credit: Feds want to help build massive wind farm larger than the City of Houston off the coast of Galveston | Shelby Webb, Staff writer | Houston Chronicle | Updated: July 22, 2022 | www.houstonchronicle.com ~~
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More than half a million acres of Gulf of Mexico waters some 24 miles off the coast of Galveston could be dotted by wind turbines after federal officials on Wednesday said they are considering leasing the area for energy projects.
The proposed “wind energy area” covers 546,645 acres – larger than the city of Houston – and could produce enough electricity to power about 2.3 million homes, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said.
A second proposal about 64 miles off the coast of Lake Charles, La., would cover 188,023 acres and could produce power for 799,000 homes, officials said.
The wind energy area proposal is still just a draft, the bureau said. Visitors to its website can comment on the plans, and the bureau will hold online public meetings Aug. 9 and 11 to discuss the proposals.
“Once the final wind energy area or areas have been identified, the next step is to propose a lease sale for public comment either later this year or early next year,” said John Filostrat, a spokesman for BOEM’s Gulf of Mexico office.
The bureau said state officials and wind developers would determine if electricity generated in the areas’ boundaries would flow to the Texas power grid or the neighboring East Coast grid system. The Coast Guard would determine if commercial or recreational boats – including commercial fishing and shrimping operations – could enter the waters near the wind turbines, bureau officials said, adding that they have held several meetings with fishing groups and associations this year.
As a result, they said they have already carved out parcels from the lease area to leave bare for shrimping operations to continue.
The announcement is part of a Biden administration initiative to help develop 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind generation by 2030, a jaw-dropping increase from the 42 megawatts of electricity produced by the only two offshore wind farms in operation nationwide. Those projects, off the coasts of Virginia and Rhode Island, are in state waters; there are no projects in federal waters.
Another 15 projects are in the permitting phase, and eight states have set goals to procure a combined 39,298 megawatts from offshore operations by 2040, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. One megawatt is enough to power about 200 homes on a hot summer day.
Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said developing wind farms off the coast of Texas has been a long time coming. A previous effort to build 50 wind turbines 10 miles off of Texas in 2007 fell apart due to economic concerns, but comments in a request for information issued by the bureau showed that developers have a renewed interest in developing here, he said.
“The biggest benefit of offshore wind is lowering carbon emissions by allowing us to stop to using oil and gas as much,” Metzger said. “We’re already seeing some of the worst impacts global warming right now with record heat, wildfires and hurricanes. We know it will only get worse if we don’t act.”
Requesting comment for draft leases is part of the first of four stages of developing offshore wind. The second stage is selling the leases and doing more detailed environmental impact studies; the third is site assessments; and the fourth is construction and operation. It can take about 10 years from the first stage before wind turbines are operational.
Plans for offshore wind developments in the Gulf lag behind those along the East Coast. Leases for offshore wind are already for sale in North Carolina, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.
Wind power along the Gulf Coast tends to be strongest south of Corpus Christi, tapering off by the time it reaches Florida, according to a bureau study.
Even so, the Gulf of Mexico has a leg up on the competition, said Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind for the American Clean Power Association. The region is home to an entire supply chain dedicated to offshore energy and a trained workforce. Already, he said, a massive wind turbine installation vessel is being built in Brownsville.
“The Gulf of Mexico has a head start, and we should be leveraging that,” he said. “Wind turbine technology is getting better. They’re getting larger, and as they get larger they can be built in a more economical way at lower wind speeds.”
One issue more pressing for Gulf turbines than those in other offshore areas is the potential for strong hurricanes. Kaplowitz said the turbines off Rhode Island and those designed for off the coast of North Carolina have been engineered to withstand hurricane-force winds. He said those built off the Texas coast would likely be designed to withstand winds of the strongest storms projected to hit that part of the coast.
Offshore wind turbines have yet to be tested in such a ferocious storm, Andy Swift, associate director of education with Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute, told the Chronicle in October. Turbines onshore have suffered catastrophic damage in tornadoes, he said, requiring companies to take out large insurance policies on them. That could also be the case in the Gulf, he said.
“The storm issue – it’s a big one. I think people are looking at building more hurricane-resistant turbines as much as they can to stand against the high winds continually buffering of equipment, with waves and winds gusting against it,” Swift said in October. “I think that’s a challenge for offshore.”
If the offshore wind power flows into Electric Reliability Council of Texas, it could help the grid meet the record-breaking and growing demand the nonprofit grid operator has seen in recent months. For a moment Wednesday afternoon, demand surpassed 80,000 megawatts for the first time.
Some state officials, including ERCOT interim CEO Brad Jones and Gov. Greg Abbott, have blamed low output from the state’s onshore wind fleet for tight grid conditions this summer, although it has long been known that wind blows less on hot summer days and is usually strongest during winters and in the evenings. Offshore wind, however, performs much better during the middle of hot days.
Ed Hirs, an energy fellow with the University of Houston, said having more power generation close to large population centers helps decrease congestion on transmission lines and can help reduce the price of electricity locally.
“This doesn’t negate the need for backup generators,” he said. “Is it a great thing to build? Absolutely. It adds a resource we desperately need. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate all the time, ERCOT or the host grid is going to have to have some sort of standby generation capacity.”
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