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Offshore Wind: DOE’s Reality Challenge

[Editor’s note: The feasibility and desirability of aggressively pursuing offshore wind turbines has entered the national discussion. This post by Lisa Linowes, executive director of Industrial Wind Action Group, contributes to this debate.]

We were treated this week to the Department of Energy’s latest advocacy on wind energy: a new report proclaiming the benefits and feasibility of developing wind power along the coastal waters of the United States. The report adds little to the claims touted in DOE’s “20% Wind Power by 2020″ (2008), but this time the focus is on 54,000 megawatts of electrical wind capacity off our eastern seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes. Water depths on the Pacific Coast, according to the DOE, still pose a “technology challenge”. [1]

Offshore Wind in the U.S. today

Currently, there are no operating offshore wind plants anywhere in the country. The controversial Cape Wind project (130 turbines) proposed nearly ten years ago is still under fire. Wealthy property owners on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were joined by Wal-Mart, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and wind developer TransCanada among others in protesting the no-compete, high-priced power purchase agreement under review by the State of Massachusetts.

In Rhode Island, approval of Deepwater Wind’s pilot project is under appeal by the state’s Attorney General and others over alleged illegalities by the legislature in pushing the project through. Delaware’s Bluewater Wind project is in limbo due to poor economics and growing public opposition to expensive renewable energy. A fight sparked in Michigan over a 1000 megawatt wind facility in Lake Michigan packed hearing rooms with angry protests. And the same response came from communities along northern New York after NYPA sought bids to build turbines in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

None of these projects, in total, match the scale and cost of what DOE claims can be built. And frankly, we question the reality of 54,000 megawatts of offshore wind. This would mean 115 projects equivalent in size to Cape Wind’s 468 MW — 15,000 turbines — located within 10 miles of our coastlines and spanning 3,000 square miles of open water. The eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine is only 1,342 miles.

Technology and Cost Challenges

Obvious environmental and visual impacts are only a part of the issue. Problems with the technology and the economics of offshore wind are very real.

In 2005, all eighty of the Vestas V90 turbines at Denmark’s offshore Horns Rev facility had to be removed and repaired owing to the effect of salty water and air on the generators and gearboxes. The problem appeared after only two years of operation. A similar repair was reported on thirty Vestas turbines off the UK coast requiring a change of rotor bearings.

Turbine failures offshore are harder to repair and are often addressed on an aggregated basis. It’s not unusual to wait as long as three months before turbines are fixed, leading to lower equipment availability. While wind conditions, in theory, are better for energy generation, one report claims the tough environment could mean turbines are only able to transfer power for 160 days of the year.

Earlier this year, another issue was reported having to do with the underwater foundations holding the turbines in place. Hundreds of European offshore wind turbines were found to have a design fault that caused the towers to slide on their bases. The problem was universal and not specific to any one project or turbine manufacturer.

And then there’s the cost.

The Cape Wind project is expected to cost $2.5 billion for 468 megawatts — an enormous expense for any individual power plant, especially one expected to deliver only 39% of the time with no guarantees the generation will arrive when most needed. With high upfront costs and fewer hours to spread the cost over, offshore wind is not economically viable without significant public support, higher electricity rates, and severe constraints imposed on more reliable sources of generation.

The DOE admits its analyses are preliminary but it’s the assumptions that worry us. The report includes this paragraph:

“NREL’s Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) model shows offshore wind penetration of between 54 GW and 89 GW by 2030 when economic scenarios favoring offshore wind are applied. These cases used combinations of cost reductions (resulting from technology improvements and experience), rising natural gas prices (3% annually), heavy constraints on conventional power and new transmission development in congested coastal regions, and national incentive policies.” [emphasis added]

The authors insist that such an undertaking will revitalize our manufacturing sector and create more than 43,000 permanent, well-paid technical jobs, but DOE ignores the negative economic effects.

Earlier this year, Vermont’s Department of Public Service published a report on the economic consequences of setting mandatory prices for only 50 MW of renewable energy technologies.

While the State’s analysis found the feed in tariff program would increase Vermont capital investment and create jobs, it also found that other sectors would suffer long term net job losses. In essence, jobs would be created in one sector of the Vermont economy at the expense others.

The model also showed that above-market energy costs due to higher electricity prices would have the deleterious effects of “reshuffling consumer spending and increasing the cost of production for Vermont businesses” and that “increased costs for households and employers would reduce the positive employment impacts of renewable energy capital investment and the annual repair and maintenance activities”. This issue was also highlighted in testimony submitted on the Cape Wind and Deepwater Wind projects.

The DOE report does not bother to model the impact of higher energy costs on the overall economy.

As for obstacles to development cited by DOE, the authors demonstrate how little they’ve discussed their ideas with real people in this country.

On visual effects, the authors acknowledge that coastal dwellers might object to the turbines and recommend added study to understand coastal communities and their ability to accept changes to the seascape. Regarding property values, DOE relies on the poorly defined Hoen/Wiser study to claim no impact but admit more work is needed for coastal properties. On tourism, they concede that evidence is ambiguous but still claim, “actual effects appear to be minimal”. And finally, on marine safety they admit collisions may pose a potentially significant risk to the marine environment or to human safety but offer cold comfort that no incidents have occurred to date.

There have been recent cries for a national energy policy in the United States, but public policy requires credible analysis with an objective eye on reality. If the best DOE has to offer is an advocacy report steeped in wishful thinking, then perhaps for now our better approach would be no policy at all.

Endnotes—————————————-

[1] About 950 wind turbines are now sited off the coasts of Europe and China. Half of these turbines were erected in 2009 and 2010.

9 comments

1 Breaking Wind – Quick hits from the industry for October 14, 2010 « Allegheny Treasures { 10.14.10 at 7:50 am }

[...] Offshore Wind: DOE’s Reality Challenge – MasterResource [...]

2 Jon Boone { 10.14.10 at 10:52 am }

The release of this latest DOE/NREL wind “report,” as was the case with others, is timed to influence Congressional consideration of subsidies for wind, this year offering up RES, which would almost wholly benefit aeolian technology. Nothing better illustrates the capture of government by corrupt corporations than the cuddly relationship (and revolving door) among staff at the National Renewable Energy Lab, the American Wind Energy Association, General Electric, Iberdola, Vestas, Ken Salazar, the nation’s interior secretary, and operations like Google (http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/10/1014/0004).

Selling snake oil at this level of magnitude requires much due diligence. However, using wind as a mechanism to generate income through federal tax avoidance while increasing fossil fuel marketshare, which GE, FPL, AES, BP, Siemens continue to do, is highly successful enterprise. And 54GW of offshore wind would keep the beer flowing for some years in Denmark and Spain for Vestas and Iberdola. Now Google wants more of the action, as if it didn’t already have enough.

All this success comes at the expense of government reputation. Shilling for an intellectually bankrupt energy idea in order to make money for cronies expends political capital in dangerous ways. The corruption of DOE’s integrity might well provide fertile soil in which to nourish the idea that the agency be decommissioned–the sooner, the better.

3 Donald Hertzmark { 10.14.10 at 2:29 pm }

We do not yet know the particulars of the Google offshore proposal. However, a direct Tx line from Virginia to NJ would certainly raise interesting commercial opportunities for the owner of the line. Since both locales are members of the PJM Interconnect, it will be interesting to know the conditions for connection with PJM that this venture would propose. For example, will the Tx line owners be able to move power directly from low-cost VA to high cost NJ? And what will ratepayers in VA think about that? (hint: ratepayers in NJ will be smiling)

For example, by connecting to PJM at both ends the transmission operator will make sure that the Tx line does not destabilize at either the VA or NJ interconnections. Who will pay for all of that voltage and frequency support? Will the JV install equipment to do so or will they throw garbage at PJM expecting the Tx operator to clean it all up.

The NYT article makes PJM sound like some hidebound fossil of a bygone era ( “. . . does not have procedures to integrate a project like this”). But the reality is that PJM has been happy to integrate wind as long as it was a trivial proportion of total supply. This is a different story and raises costs for the interconnected system.

6GW of wind in NJ down to VA is enough to have a measurable impact on electricity rates in the mid-Atlantic region. The average generation cost for wind even after federal production tax credits is about 23¢/kWh. They would need some fancy trading profits from the Tx line to make up for that.

4 Donald Hertzmark { 10.14.10 at 2:30 pm }

Note: 23¢/kWh is the generation cost for offshore wind after PTC.

5 Kent Hawkins { 10.14.10 at 3:32 pm }

Offshore has not been aggressively pursued for some time, even by countries foremost in wind plant deployment, such as Denmark, Germany and Spain. The first German offshore wind farm, Alpha Ventus (60 MW), was completed in 2009, versus a planned level of thousands of MW. Notably, there are recent stirrings in Denmark and Germany, but the reasons may have more to do with supporting ill-advised, and now threatened by competition, industrial policies dependent upon the export of wind turbines, growing public opposition, as well as questionable EU energy mandates, than feasibility.

As a result offshore represents only about 1% of wind implementations world-wide. What has caused the hiatus, for the past 5 years or so? In large part there is still substantial scope for onshore in other countries, at least in countries other than Denmark and Germany. The larger issue is the problems with this technology in oceans and lakes, which Lisa has noted.

Of course in some countries there is a movement to emphasize offshore as the saviour of supposedly “failing” energy policies, most notably the UK, which is now the world leader at only about 900 MW in 2009. In North America, as Lisa points out, there is some focus in the U.S. for deployment offshore on the seacoasts as well as in the Great Lakes. Asia is stirring but the main focus of installations to date by far is Europe.

Any claims of higher capacity factors than onshore are not meaningful. This is an aggregate of production over time and is not a useful measure of the value of wind plants, because the real-time production fluctuates randomly and frequently through a wide range of the wind plant capacity. Stronger wind regimes are not necessarily better as the volatility is more intense.

There are claims that offshore winds are stronger and steadier. In any research on the steadiness of ocean winds that I have done (fairly limited at this stage), the only reference I could find was to directional steadiness. More information on this topic is welcome.

Members of the public with a variety of backgrounds who are faced with the prospect of wind plants in their communities take the time to understand the realities and implications, and this is where much of the opposition comes from. Offshore offers governments a means to by-pass some of the increasing public opposition to, and knowledge about, onshore wind plants. This is a factor in Denmark’s re-focus on offshore. The vast majority of onshore wind turbines there are much smaller than the larger, and more problematic, multi-MW wind turbines now being deployed onshore everywhere else. Only about 10% of the Danish onshore installations (some recent re-powering of older turbines has increased this), are the larger type.

Wind plant deployment in any form is not wise public policy. Offshore is an even worse case of folly.

6 Paul in Sweden { 10.15.10 at 1:55 am }

It seems unfathomable that potential environmental impacts off offshore wind farms are not making their way into the general media. Could it be that wind turbines that vibrate violently enough to shake their foundations loose and provide a constant strobe effect on the sea surface have no adverse effects on marine life?

What is the story on marine impacts of offshore wind farms?

7 Kent Hawkins { 10.15.10 at 7:29 am }

Ontario, Canada, now one of the leading wind radical extremists (yes, the use of both words is appropriate), contemplates significant wind plants both onshore and offshore in the Great Lakes, largely in the name of CO2 emissions reduction, economic development and capturing leadership is what is claimed to be a significant, new technology. In this connection, The Ontario Power Authority commissioned no less than three studies from Hélimax Energy Inc. on the subject of wind power potential in Ontario. The first, dated November 2005, covered both onshore and offshore, and was not encouraging on the latter. The following are excerpts from the last two reports. The last one was specifically to address the offshore potential.

Hélimax March 2006 Report
“Only the onshore resource was considered in this report. Though Hélimax’s previous report to the OPA confirmed a significant offshore resource, particularly in Lake Erie and Lake Huron, it is generally thought that, due to additional challenges faced by offshore wind farms, this resource would only be exploited after the majority of the most viable onshore sites have been developed. One of the difficulties today for offshore development is the various environmental and social interests in the marine sites. Another issue is the greater amount of risk in developing, financing and operating wind farms.”

Hélimax April 2008 Report
“While the study does provide an overview of the development potential in the study area [offshore], it is important to note that a number of critical factors were not evaluated or were examined in only a preliminary (non site-specific) manner. Such factors include most notably seabed properties and icing conditions of the Great Lakes, as well as non-technical aspects such as visual impact, social acceptability and economic viability.”

In my opinion, this amounts to “three strikes”, but the Ontario Government (the umpire) decided offshore wind was a “home run”. Sound familiar?

8 Kent Hawkins { 10.23.10 at 8:01 am }

Offshore Wind Capacity Factors

I do not consider capacity factors to be an overly-meaningful measure of wind plant value, but many do. With this in mind, what are the real experiences with the world leader in off-shore wind, the United Kingdom? According to a report just released by its Ministry/Department of Energy and Climate, the Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2010 (the “DUKES” report) the statistics for their offshore wind plants are shown below. The first series (A) is calculated based on the average capacity for the year and the second (B) on only those installations that were present at the beginning of the year and did not change during the year:

(A) 2005 – 27.2%, 2006 – 28.7%, 2007 – 25.6%, 2008 – 30.4%, 2009 – 26.0%
(B) 2005 (not reported), 2006 – 27.5%, 2007 – 28.3%, 2008 – 34.9%, 2009 – 33.7%

There is a problem in dealing with new installations and changes to existing ones, especially with such a small base as offshore wind plants, which allows for some manipulation of the results. A realistic view is probably somewhere between the two series. In any event, the high capacity factors projected for offshore do not seem to be realized in practice and are closer to the high end of actual results and projections for onshore.

9 Craig Goodrich { 11.16.10 at 2:21 pm }

A point that is not mentioned is the effect on marine mammals. We know that turbine plants in habitat areas drive all wildlife away — deer, squirrels, even raccoons (who normally will tolerate anything for a free meal). But the extreme pulsating low-frequency vibrations — the same ones which shake the turbines off their platforms — will carry for dozens of miles in water (witness whale songs). This has wrought havoc at the Yorkshire seal breeding grounds, causing huge numbers of pups to be born dead or be abandoned by their overstressed mothers.

Only the combination of delusional greens, idiot politicians, and greedy industrialists could have come up with a plague that so perfectly integrates massive environmental destruction, hideous expense, and negative utility.

It seems at times as though our entire society has somehow fallen under the control of malign imbeciles.

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