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