Offshore Wind Farms: Fanning the Future of the Eastern Coastal United States

Offshore wind farm (Siemens Press, 2013)

Offshore wind farm (Siemens Press, 2013)

Saubhagya Budhathoki, Nathaly Figueroa, & Kirsten Pickford

Department of Environmental Conservation

Introduction

The use of renewable resources in place of fossil fuels is growing in popularity around the world. One of the reasons renewable resources are becoming so popular is because of global population growth. This year so far there have been over 125,000,000 births and only 53,000,000 deaths, making the population grow by 75,000,000 this year and it is projected that the world will hit 8 billion by the spring of 2024 (Worldometers, 2013). As population grows, countries are becoming more developed. As these countries become more developed they use up more energy.

The United States is the second largest energy consumer in the world. Currently, the United States relies on foreign countries to meet its national energy demand. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2012 the United States imported over 10 million barrels of petroleum per day from 80 different countries around the world (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2013). Much of the world is investing in renewable energy, and it is time for the United States make these changes too. Even just a small step in the right direction can make a difference. Harnessing the wind on the shores of the United States east coast will create health and economic benefits, as well as take the reliance off of foreign oil. Why hasn’t the United States taken the first step? Since the end of World War II the United States has been on the forefront of technology and innovations. As countries in Europe and Asia reap the benefits of offshore wind farms, the United States remains unable to do the same due to community resistance. Although offshore wind can be expensive in the short term, the long term benefits will outweigh the initial costs. The eastern seaboard of the United States would be an ideal place for offshore wind farms because of its high wind speeds and population density.

Potential of Offshore Wind

Offshore wind farms are a great source of renewable energy as they have a great potential to produce the electricity needed to power our coastal states. Offshore wind farms benefit from having no obstructions and thus can take advantage of the increased wind speeds. The Atlantic coast of the United States needs to be studied further to understand the full potential that offshore wind could have. One such study was done in the state of Maryland, it included data from NOAA coastal relief, NOAA data buoy center, and nautical charts. The researchers Sheridan, Baker, Pearre, et all (2012) found that “the state’s average electricity consumption [in 2007] was 7465 MWa” (p. 231) and that the wind potential off the shores of Maryland could, “generate 5254 MWa on average” (p. 231). This conclusion is based off of, “Development within the 0-35 m depth range… allows the potential to site nearly 3000 turbines, which on average could supply 70% of the Maryland electric load” (Sheridan, Baker, Pearre, Firestone, Kempton, 2012, p. 231). This is a huge potential and one that should be understood both by policy decision makers and by average citizens that will reap the benefits of this clean energy.

The potential energy from offshore wind farms will help policy makers stay on track with current energy efficiency goals. In the case of Maryland it will help comply with a law called the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) which mandates that 18% of Maryland’s electricity be  supplied by renewable energy sources by the end of 2022. Over half of the fifty states in the U.S. have similar RPS policies; nineteen of those are coastal states with offshore wind potential. (Sheridan, Baker, Pearre, Firestone, Kempton, 2012, p. 232).

Offshore wind energy could potentially help make a large percentage of states more sustainable. European countries have been leading the way in green energy but the United States has a long coastline that could be used to support our energy needs. But in order to sell this idea to the public we need to consider that, “offshore wind power is still more expensive than the market price of energy… [as] can be inferred from two recent power purchase agreements for offshore wind energy in Delaware and Massachusetts” (Sheridan, Baker, Pearre, Firestone, Kempton, 2012, p. 232). In 2006 the price paid for electricity generated in large wind farms was between 3.0 and 6.5 cents/kilowatt-hour (DOE, 2009, p. 27). This is of consern for the average customer that will see an increase in their energy bills because even if they want to have access to cleaner energy they may not be able to pay more to get it. Thus, it is important to look at federal help such as the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) and state-level renewable electricity standards, like Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which help mitigate the cost of offshore wind farms. The federal PTC provides a 1.5-cent/kWh tax credit during the first 10 years of a wind energy facility’s operation (DOE, 2009, p. 6). This helps mitigate some of the cost for the consumers that will benefit from this renewable energy.

It is important to find ways to communicate to policy makers and the residents that the price of offshore wind energy will, in the long run, be brought down to average energy costs. The monetary costs are outweighed by the environmental and social benefits, such as lower greenhouse gas emissions and becoming more energy independent, a message that needs to be made clear to the general public.

 

Resistant Audience

Offshore wind farms are a great step towards a more environmentally conscious future but many argue that the damage caused to the animals that live in the oceans along the way take away from the benefits that offshore wind can produce. One of the main arguments is that the noise created when pile-driving, attaching the windmills to the ocean floor, can cause hearing damage to marine mammals. A study by Baily, Senior, Simmons et al. (2010) suggests that having a,” ‘soft start’ whereby the force of piling was gradually increased to alert animals in the vicinity to the commencement of the operations,” can be one strategy to help prevent hearing damage (Baily, Senior, Simmons et al., 2010, p. 890).  The results from recordings while the pile-driving occurred showed that, “All three marine mammal species (bottlenose dolphins, harbor porpoises and common seals) may be capable of hearing the pile-driving sound… until it reached background levels at about 70 km distance” (Baily, Senior, Simmons et al., 2010, p. 895). This means that at a distance of 70 km around the pile-driving site the marine mammals can hear the pile driving but with the ‘soft start’ technique as a warning the mammals should have enough time to leave the immediate area.  This study was conducted in the Moray Firth, NE Scotland, where trained marine mammal observers (MMOs) using both visual and passive acoustic detection, ensured that marine mammals were not within 1 km of the operation (Baily, Senior, Simmons et al., 2010, p. 890). There are new technologies, like floating wind turbines, being tested to create better wind farms that will have the least negative impact on marine wildlife.

Another main concern of the general public when it comes to offshore wind farms would be the negative impact that the wind turbines would have on tourism and aesthetics in the area. A study done by the College of Marine and Earth Studies at the University of Delaware showed that 72% of the 504 residents of the Cape-Wind proposed area of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, believed that there would be a negative impact on the ocean view and 42% believed that tourism would suffer because of this (Firestone & Kempton, 2007). These statistics showed that both supporters and opponents feared that the wind farms would depreciate their back yard and take away from the scenery that had been there for centuries.

There have been multiple examples of offshore wind farms popping up all over the world and causing a boom in ecotourism, especially in Europe. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people” (The International Ecotourism Society, 1990).  According to Albrecht, Wagner, and Wesselmann of the German Offshore Wind Energy Foundation (2013), “A fascination with technology could lead to an increased number of visitors and day-trippers [to the region]” (Albrecht, Wagner, & Wesselmann, 2013,  p. 15). In the South Baltic Region they have even set up a “Tour de Wind”. Albrecht, Wagner, and Wesselmann (2013), describe this as, “a sightseeing tour that connects over twenty stations related to onshore, and especially offshore wind energy” (Albrecht, Wagner, & Wesselmann, 2013, p.16). In a study done by Hubner and Pohl 47% [of visiting tourists] would be interested in having either an information center or boat tours, bringing more tourism into the area. Creating a way to educate the public in a fun way if we were to develop wind farms on the eastern coast of the United States could help take the pressure off of the surrounding communities as a whole (Albrecht, Wagner, & Wesselmann, 2013, p.16).

The United States can follow Denmark’s example and focus on high level of community engagement. The Horns Rev wind farm was completed in 2003 after the Danish government selected the site as a pilot project (Wiersma et al., 2011). During the development phase, the screening exercise showed that there were minimal conflicts with sea users (Wiersma et al., 2011). Although local fishermen had to be compensated and visual pollution was a minor issue, the wind farm is now a tourist attraction (Wiersma et al., 2011). By addressing the concerns of the public, projects have a greater chance of success.

 

Proposal

In order for offshore wind to really take off in the U.S. two main issues need to be addressed. After the concerns of the resistant audience have been addressed the economic feasibility of installing these turbines must make sense. For the U.S. to maximize offshore wind development, the issues of cost competitiveness and infrastructure need to be addressed.

Offshore wind faces tough competition from cheap fossil fuels that it’s trying to displace. Investment support schemes and operating support schemes are two areas that can help projects become cost competitive. The investment support schemes help reduce costs for investors in the construction phase. European countries have used various methods to facilitate offshore energy such as cash grants, loans, tax breaks, and tax credits (Hahn & Gilman, 2013). During energy production, operating schemes such as feed-in-tariff (FIT) are used to help the energy generators by offering long-term contracts. FIT involves a guaranteed price per kWh to the producer and often includes reduction in tariff over time in order to encourage innovation (Hahn & Gilman, 2013). This is the most popular support scheme in Europe due to security to investors and lifespans typically between 10 to 15 years (Hahn & Gilman, 2013).

The US lacks infrastructure for offshore wind which include transmission, ports, and manufacturing. Transmission systems currently do not integrate power generated by offshore wind since it does not exist (Hahn & Gilman, 2013). Many facilities are close to the shoreline, so with some investment they can be utilized to support energy generated from offshore wind farms.  The ports that currently exists were not designed for offshore wind, thus need upgrading. They lack many services to maintain large turbines and foundations which are ever growing. Ports need to be upgraded in order to support large turbines in the future. Ports also need to be able to support manufacturing at the site (Hahn & Gilman, 2013). By having local manufacturing it creates jobs and reduces the cost of travel. With appropriate funding, the infrastructure can be upgraded to adequately produce turbines and distribute power to customers.

Currently the United States finds itself in the “chicken and egg” conundrum. Without the demand for infrastructure to accommodate offshore wind, the costs to import parts as well as transfer energy will remain high. And without the turbines spinning there is no demand to upgrade the infrastructure. We believe that the United States can accomplish harvesting winds off the coast by looking at Europe’s example. By having clear policy that supports offshore wind for the long term by making it financially attractive and secure for investors, there will be wind turbines spinning off the coast of the United States.

Conclusion

Investing in offshore wind energy is a smart step for the United States and the northeast in particular towards shifting away from fossil fuels to clean energy. By focusing on research and development, the technology will become more efficient and cheaper. The start of a new technology is always challenging, but as time passes it becomes better and Europe has already invested enough to show the United States that offshore wind can be accomplished.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau 39% of the nation’s population, 123 million, lives in coastal shoreline counties. The U.S. Census Bureau also found a 34.8 million increase in population from 1970 to 2010. Not only are the coastal areas populous, it is also crowded. The same population lives in less than 10 percent of the total land area of the United States excluding Alaska (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). When considering the energy demands and the close proximity to the shores, it is much more sensible to have offshore wind farms providing the energy needs instead of thousands of new miles of transmission lines needed to connect the wind turbines in the Midwest or the solar energy generated by the Southwest to population centers throughout the country, especially the high developed Northeast region.

There is no national goal set out by the United States government for renewable energy. But several states have set a certain percentage of energy from renewables as their target. The federal government is at a virtual standstill, so it seems offshore wind and renewables in general will be pursued by individual states. The Cape Wind project in Massachusetts appears to have finally cleared all of the hurdles and should begin construction next year. The Atlantic Wind Connection is a project that hopes to lay down transmission lines to eventually connect wind farms from New Jersey to Virginia (Levita, 2013). Slowly, but surely the gears seem to be turning and in the near future the United States will have its first offshore wind farm. The huge potential off the coast cannot be ignored for much longer and with the technology and know-how already there, it is a no-brainer to harness clean energy off the coast of the United States.

References:

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Evan

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