DOE Spends $141 Million to Speed Offshore Wind Project Development

Photos, Top: Siemens Wind Power; Bottom: Dominion Virginia Power
Europe is already awash in offshore wind farms, like this one in the Baltic Sea near Germany.

Though the actual waters off of the United States' windy shores remains free of turbines (with one minor exception), the theoretical waters are getting crowded with turbines. Along with frontrunners Cape Wind and Deepwater Wind near Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a few other projects are starting to get the sort of backing that will help them join the party. Yesterday, the Department of Energy announced funding of up to $47 million each for three projects off of New Jersey, Virginia, and Oregon.

The New Jersey project, backed by a group called Fishermen's Energy, has seen its share of setbacks already. The state Board of Public Utilities rejected the plan for five turbines offshore from Atlantic City, citing excessive costs to tax payers; last month the company filed an appeal saying the Board drastically overestimated the costs. It's the kind of back-and-forth that $47 million from the federal government might actually help with. The DOE's announcement highlights how these projects will feature innovative technologies that should help lower costs for future projects. Fishermen's Energy, for example, will use a "twisted jacket foundation" that reduces installation and manufacturing costs over traditional offshore platforms (illustrated below). The project will feature five 5-megawatt turbines, and will sit three miles (4.8 kilometers) offshore.

Dominion Virginia Power, which won a federal lease auction in 2013 to develop a massive offshore area, will also use the twisted jacket foundation for its two-turbine, 12-megawatt project. The big benefit here will be gaining experience working much farther from shore: the turbines are slated for a spot 26 miles (41.9 km) off the coast. The project will also feature a "hurricane-resilient design" to ensure these facilities could handle placement in hurricane-prone areas.

Finally, Principle Power will also receive funding to help with a five-turbine, 30-megawatt project 18 miles (28.9 km) off the cost of Coos Bay in Oregon. This project is very different and particularly suited to the deeper waters of the West Coast: it will use a semi-submersible floating foundation in more than 1000 feet (304.8 meters) of water, a proof-of-principle that will be very important for development of 60 percent of the U.S. offshore wind resource.

These are still small potatoes compared to what's been going in Europe for more than a decade now, of course. None of the projects exceed 30 megawatts capacity; all three of them combined could fit inside the London Array, switched on last year in the Thames Estuary in the United Kingdom, nine times over. The French government, looking to make a rapid move away from fossil fuels and even nuclear power, which dominates that country's power generation, wants 6 000 MW of offshore wind by 2020. Asia as well is moving significantly faster than the U.S., with a few operational wind farms in China and Japan, and 13.5 gigawatts of offshore capacity on its way by 2020.

The Department of Energy's continued funding of these smaller demonstration projects is a good first step, but at the moment it remains hard to picture that this industry will truly take off any time soon. The National Offshore Wind Strategy is optimistic, though, with a plan to install 54 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030. An HSBC report sees only one of those 54 gigawatts by 2020, meaning that next decade will need to see an amazing flurry of construction. Getting the early projects in the water is clearly an important first step.

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