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Offshore wind – will the US catch up?

By Dave Elliott

It has been striking how much more enthusiastic the EU, and the UK especially, has been on offshore wind compared with the US. The EU will soon have nearly 11GW installed, compared to zero so far in the US. Part of the reason for the difference has been that, unlike the US, there are shallow waters off the UK and some other parts of the EU, which enabled earlier easier projects, with piles driven into the sea-bed for supporting towers – nursery slopes, in effect. It wasn’t until new “floating” wind technology emerged that deep-water sites further offshore became viable. Floating jacket leg and spar buoy systems are being tested off the EU coast and the US and Japan are also now in the race, in the later case as part of the response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, with a 2MW unit installed off Fukushima and 7MW floating devices now under test.

The US has focused on its very large wind resource on-land (70GW has been installed so far), while offshore projects have met with long delays and opposition, with in some cases the latter being quite bitter. For example, Cape Wind says its proposed 468MW project off the New England coast has been blocked for ‘over more than a decade’, and that the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a local group fighting against the project, had ‘systematically engaged in a pattern of behaviour calculated to delay the development and financing of Cape Wind’s offshore wind facility’.

However, given the large resource and continued interest in developing it, the prospects for offshore wind in the US remain good and have been reviewed in a recent PNAS paper by researchers at the University of Delaware: The paper also looks at how the UK did it, given that the UK is the leader, with over 5GW installed so far and much more planned. It says that The United Kingdom essentially set up a market where offshore wind developers compete against one another rather than against other technologies, much as Germany and other European countries had successfully done with technology-specific feed-in-tariffs (some US states use a similar strategy, with technology-specific renewable energy credit markets). The United Kingdom also actively promoted offshore wind power through a series of calls for proposals and, by 2013, it had come to consider offshore wind as the main source of renewable energy to meet its European commitments. Both the United Kingdom and Danish efforts are now, respectively, further driven by Scotland and Denmark’s ambitious 100% renewable energy goals.’              

There are some difficulties with this rendition of history: the market-based UK Renewables Obligation is actually very different from the guaranteed price EU Feed In Tariffs (with no competition involved), and offshore wind has not so far been a major growth area in Scotland, though that will change soon. However, the paper’s analysis of what might be done in the US is interesting, especially given the trend now in the EU to switch to a project auction tendering approach, as with the UK’s new Contracts for Difference support system. The paper says the US ‘should look to maximize installed offshore wind capacity over the next 10 years…rather than maximize short-term revenue through lease auctions irrespective of whether or not they result in development. A legislative fix should be the first order of business’. So it suggests building on the existing type of new technology support practices that are common in the US, and that a long term tax credit that ‘recognizes offshore wind’s long planning horizon and that is based on investment costs, as opposed to electricity production, is appropriate given the large capital costs associated with offshore wind power development. There should also be a bigger emphasis on loan guarantees.’   

Obviously, there are also regulatory issues and the paper provides a helpful summary of some of the environmental impact issues. It says that studies have shown that ‘the environmental effects of properly sited, executed, and operated wind projects are, as a general rule, low level (1). For example, fatality rates of birds are lower than might have been anticipated given avoidance behavior (2), and impacts on dolphins and porpoises have been identified as being more of a short-term nature than resulting in long-term consequences (3,4,5)’. It notes that organizations such as the US National Wildlife Federation and Massachusetts Audubon support offshore wind power, but calls for some caution, given that ‘northern European waters lack large migrating whales’.

Overall though it’s very positive, and the US does now seem to be pushing ahead with offshore wind on both its seaboards. The planned 5 turbine 30MW Block Island project, off Rhode Island, is nearing completion:  It may soon be followed by others, with the offshore resource being developed via an auctioning process. For example, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has auctioned off an area off the New Jersey coast for the development of offshore wind, with ~3.4GW being feasible if the zone is fully developed. 13 companies were eligible to participate in the auction, including EDF Renewable Energy, Fishermen’s Energy, Iberdrola Renewables, OffshoreMW, US Mainstream Renewable Power, and RES America. In the event, US Wind and RES America won. Elsewhere on the Atlantic coast, Dominion Virginia Power has invited a second round of bids for the Virginia Offshore Wind Technology Advancement Project after the first round was found to be too costly. On the west coast, where the resource is also quite large, in addition to the proposal for a wave float system off Oregon, there’s a proposed 1GW Morro Bay floating project off California from new start-up company Trident Winds.

The rise of interest in these projects is perhaps surprising given that the on-shore wind resource is very large with generation costs that are increasingly competitive. However much of this resource is in the central-mid west zone, so that transmission distances to major urban loads in the northeast and far west are long. Wind farms offshore, by contrast, would be near major centres of population, and power could be distributed more easily to them. For example, there have been some interesting proposals for offshore grid linkups off the East Coast, with an undersea network linking up to 6GW of offshore wind capacity:

With the cost of offshore wind also falling (a Danish project is going ahead at around $110/MWh) we may well see the US expanding into this area. China has already joined the race, heading for 1GW actually running, with over 3GW more being built or planned. It has quite ambitious long-term targets and might, according to IRENA, get to 60GW by 2030. That’s about what the EWEA expects to be installed off the EU by 2030, with Germany joining the race. These developments could stimulate the US to try harder. And perhaps to be more innovative. Interestingly, US developer Deepwater Wind and GE are proposing a global first: an offshore wind project that uses 15MW  Li-ion on-land battery storage as back-up for its 90MW wind project off Long Island/Rhode Island, the first stage of its 1GW scheme there:  It could be that after a long and embarrassing delay with, on one count, the US having seen 14.7GW of offshore projects planned and then abandoned, progress will at last be made. We might see 10GW soon!

Eco-impact References                                                                                                                 1. Consolidating the State of Knowledge: A Synoptical Review of Wind Energy’s Wildlife Effects

2.Avian collision risk at an offshore wind farm

3. Harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and wind farms: a case study in the Dutch North Sea

4. Underwater noise from three types of offshore wind turbines: estimation of impact zones for harbor porpoises and harbor seals

5. Wind turbine underwater noise and marine mammals: implications of current knowledge and data needs

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