October 13, 2010

Power to the Offshore Windmills

Americans love to live near the water. More than 80% of them live at the two coasts, on river flood plains or alongside the Great Lakes. So it's a strange that in the conversation on smart grids and new long-distance transmission lines, the geography of wind appears to trump the geography of population. The discussion about smart grids focussed on connecting rural places in Texas, South Dakota, and Kansas where the wind blows and wind turbines can generate electricity to far-distant cities where the people live and consume that electricity.

But the simple truth is that 28 coastal states consume 78% of all U.S. electricity, according to Walt Musial, who leads offshore wind energy research for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colorado. Throw in Michigan and the other states that rim the Great Lakes and you pretty much have most electricity consumption taking place in America within a few miles of ocean and open water. Now the oceans in particular, but the Great Lakes as well, are great big open spaces where the wind blows harder and steadier than inside mid-America, making offshore electricity generation more productive and reliable that onshore wind farms.

More important, because offshore wind farms can be just a few miles from cities, the transmission lines that need to be built between turbines and local grids and load centers are a fraction the length of those needed out in rural America. They cost less than the $1 million per mile of long-distance transmission line and lose less electricity in transmission. On the east coast, you can even transmit electricity east to west and avoid the congestion often found in transmission. And, of course, moving behemoth blades and turbines over water is a lot easier and cheaper than moving them over highways. You can put up even bigger windmills (I like that old-fashioned term) in the seas than on land. Finally, offshore electricity is local. States and local utilities play significant roles in the generation of electricity to their own localities. They don't have to wait on new, long-distance transmission lines sending juice to them from wind farms thousands of miles away.

The big economic hangup to date on offshore wind farms has been the cost of putting turbines into water. While there are significant savings on expenses for the transmission grid, the production of wind-generated electricity offshore using current technology varies from 9 cents to 25 cents per kilowatt hour compared to 5 cents out in the Texas panhandle. The further out on the Continental Shelf — or beyond — that you go, the harder it is to build that offshore turbines. In water deeper than 150 feet, you need entirely new floating platforms that have yet to be developed.

I haven't send the math for offshore wind electricity that computes gains from shorter transmission lines and losses from higher initial installation costs. I don't know what percentage of offshore electricity can be generated within shallow water. I don't know what kind of savings come from curbing losses of electricity over long distances. And I don't know how sharply and how soon costs will fall once large-scale offshore projects get under way. The very first offshore wind farm, off Cape Cod, was approved by the federal government just months ago. I'm guessing that the offshore oil drilling industry will have a lot of technology and experience to transfer to offshore wind generation.

If you look at old prints of New Amsterdam, windmills figure prominently in the city. They were then, symbols of modernity. The Beebe windmill in Bridgehampton, Long Island, was known in the early 19th century for its advanced technology. A new kite-like configuration at the top of the mill automatically pushed its sails into the wind and did away with the need for a person to physically push a pole to accomplish that task. If you fly to Toronto or Copenhagen or other cities today, you see windmills and they are once again, symbols of modernity. Offshore, even more than on land.

Bruce Nussbaum, former assistant managing editor for Business Week, is professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design.

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