Offshore Wind in Hot Water?

Guest Blog | December 27, 2011 | Energy Policy, Wind
Sea Power - Simon Mahan

Earlier this month, NRG Bluewater Wind announced its much-anticipated, Mid-Atlantic offshore wind farm proposals were being put on hold, indefinitely. While this could certainly be viewed as a setback for offshore wind development in the United States, there are a few silver linings. Namely, the hurdles identified by Bluewater Wind were not technological, social or even completely financial. In fact, the primary problem holding up offshore wind development is politics. Without stable energy policies, like an investment tax credit and predictable loan guarantees for renewable energy resources, offshore wind developers will have a more difficult time planning projects.

Offshore Wind Technology Reliability is Good and Improving

Offshore wind farms are not a new concept. Developed first in Europe in the early 1990s, wind turbines have been evaluated in the marine environment for nearly two decades. Earlier wind turbines were more susceptible to failure in a marine environment than turbines built today. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, offshore wind turbine availability (as in, the percentage of time where a turbine is not being serviced or is incapable of producing power) is around 90% and often include warranty periods to ensure power production and availability. The technology is also capitalizing on economies of scale – turbines are currently available  in 3 megawatt (MW) to 5 MW capacity with new turbines being designed for up to 15 MW. (It should be noted, the Clemson University Restoration Institute advanced drive train facility being constructed in South Carolina is designed specifically to test these larger offshore wind turbines).

Offshore Wind Proposals Enjoy Considerable Public Support

Offshore wind farms are being considered in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and here in the South. Poll after poll have shown that even if residents would face slightly higher electric bills, those same residents are highly supportive of offshore wind. For example, even though it is possibly the most contentious offshore wind project in the world, the Cape Wind project (off the coast of Massachusetts) touts a public approval rating of 87% in Massachusetts.

Offshore Wind Energy May Cost Less than New Nuclear Reactors

For the United States, where there have been no offshore wind farms installed, estimating offshore wind energy costs is difficult. Using the European experience can help, but governmental policies, transportation costs and currency exchange rates all confound a direct comparison of costs associated with existing offshore wind farms (in Europe) versus potential offshore wind farms (in the United States). Despite these difficulties, some evidence suggests offshore wind farms could deliver electricity cheaper than new nuclear power plants. While nuclear reactors are an extremely mature technology with few remaining efficiencies and cost reductions to be explored, offshore wind turbines are still a relatively young technology with many cost-savings opportunities.

Politics Trumps Progress and Clean Power

“In particular, two aspects of the project critical for success have actually gone backwards: the decisions of Congress to eliminate funding for the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program applicable to offshore wind, and the failure to extend the Federal Investment and Production Tax Credits for offshore wind which expire at the end of 2012 and which have rendered the Delaware project both unfinanceable and financially untenable for the present.” – NRG Bluewater Wind

Bluewater Wind’s ambitious offshore wind plans are only the most recent victim to stop-and-go federal energy policy.  To be sure, the stop-and-go federal policies have helped claim coal and nuclear power plants as additional victims, but this level of uncertainty disproportionately impacts innovative clean energy projects. Our elected officials need to work together to craft predictable, reasonable incentives for clean energy – especially offshore wind. With such a policy, we can harness the already existing, solid technology of offshore wind, which already has broad support, and potentially save customers (and taxpayers) money in the long run.

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