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Inside Science and Technology 

Offshore Wind: An Untapped Energy Source 

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By Grace V. Jean 

In the United States, the wind-energy industry has risen an average of 32 percent per year during the last five years. But despite efficiency improvements and other technology developments, the country still lags behind European and Asian nations in harvesting wind — particularly, offshore wind — for electricity.

Wind is now the world’s fastest growing energy source.

Germany leads in this realm. Some of its regions, along with nearby nations Denmark and Spain, produce 10 to 25 percent of their respective nations’ electricity with wind.

So far, wind provides little more than 1 percent of the total U.S. electricity supply. Last year, the nation’s land-based wind energy farms generated an estimated 48 billion kilowatt-hours — enough to power 4.5 million homes. But the U.S. wind energy potential is estimated at 10,777 billion kilowatt-hours — double the total amount of electricity generated in the country today.

President Obama has called for a doubling of renewable energy production in the next three years. He also wants to establish a national standard that would require utilities to increase that share to 25 percent by 2025.

“If we get that type of policy direction from the leadership in the federal government, then that will really push the market,” says David Blazer, a principal consultant at EcoLogix Group, a firm based in Annapolis, Md.

Several states already have adopted “renewable portfolio standards” that require a small percentage of electricity production to derive from renewable sources, such as solar and wind. Blazer says that meeting the Obama administration’s higher utilities standards would require additional resources.

“The only way a lot of states are going to be able to achieve that is with offshore wind,” he says.

So far, there are no offshore wind farms in the United States.

Europe, however, has 30 such wind parks, each with 100 to 150 spinning turbines that produce electricity for a number of nations.
Turbines located several miles off a nation’s coastline produce electricity more reliably because the wind tends to flow more consistently over the ocean. Offshore winds blow 85 to 90 percent of the time, compared to 40 to 60 percent over land.

The Energy Department in a report found that offshore wind could comprise 54,000 megawatts of the 300,000-megawatt capacity necessary to power 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by wind energy alone.

“The technology is there to do it,” says Blazer. Several years ago, a 3-megawatt turbine was considered state-of-the-art. Now a 5-megawatt, 7-megawatt, even 10-megawatt machine is within the realm of possibility, he points out.

American Superconductor Corp., which has produced motors for Navy ships, is developing 10-megawatt wind turbines by applying many of the same high temperature superconductor wire and other technologies it has built for maritime applications. “On a ship, you want smaller size, less weight and more efficiency,” says Jason Fredette, director of the company’s investor and media relations. “Inside a wind turbine, you want the same thing because these are massive systems.”

In a joint research venture with TECO-Westinghouse Motor Co., the company is developing technologies needed for a 10-megawatt wind turbine generator that will reduce the weight of a traditional turbine by one-third.

If they achieve the goal, the repercussions would be huge for offshore applications, experts say.

Generating electricity with 3-megawatt machines requires the placement of 200 turbines out in the water, Blazer says. Upgrading to 5-megawatt machines would reduce that number to 120. “If we get a better turbine technologically speaking, our costs will go down because we’re putting in 80 less foundations,” he says.

Already companies are looking to build utility-scale projects off U.S. shores, says Blazer. But the market boom is still two to three years away at the earliest because of a number of issues, he says.

One of the greatest obstacles is the nation’s antiquated electric grid. An Energy Department study reports that approximately 300,000 megawatts-worth of wind projects are awaiting grid connection because of inadequate transmission capacity. By replacing subterranean copper cables with superconductor cables, that bottleneck could be alleviated, Fredette says.

Eight proposals for offshore wind parks in the mid-Atlantic to New England regions are expected to be in different phases of negotiations by the end of the year. Proponents hope that some of them will be developed by 2014.


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