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October 30, 2013

Offshore Wind Energy Is Ready to Deliver

Offshore-wind-turbinesPhoto by Andy Dingley, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Ivy Main, Virginia Chapter Vice-Chair and member of the Beyond Coal Leadership Team

The long-awaited Cape Wind offshore wind farm will finally begin construction off the coast of Massachusetts in 2014. So, too, will the much smaller Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island. When completed, Cape Wind's 130 wind turbines will supply almost 75 percent of the power needs of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket, while the 5-turbine Block Island Farm will supply enough clean energy to power over 17,000 homes.

2014 also seems likely to see a power purchase agreement for some of the energy to be generated by a 900 MW wind farm off the tip of Long Island that would feed power to a growing and hungry New York market, at a cost that's economic now.

And with a second round of grants from the Department of Energy expected next spring, demonstration projects of 12-25 MW will also go forward in three more locations, producing power in 2017 and helping set the stage for rapid growth in the industry. The first-round grants went to projects in Oregon, Texas, Ohio, Maine, New Jersey, and Virginia.

These were a few of the highlights from the American Wind Energy Association 2013 offshore wind conference, held October 22-23 in Providence, Rhode Island. More than 700 attendees packed a ballroom to hear Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and others make the case for why offshore wind energy will play a growing role in the U.S., starting in the Northeast.

Five years have passed since the American Wind Energy Association, the University of Delaware, and the Sierra Club brought together researchers and wind developers for America's first-ever conference on offshore wind energy, in Dover, Delaware. Since then, the conference has grown in scope and attendance, but the only wind turbine to make it to U.S. waters is a one-eighth-scale test model off the coast of Maine.

While Europe surged ahead and now has more than 50 offshore wind farms, the U.S. has been hampered by a slow federal leasing process, uncertainty about tax credits, and a political process ill-suited to the long-range planning and regional cooperation needed to realize the potential of this industry.

But as this year's conference showed, the industry is moving ahead. Several states as well as the Obama administration identify offshore wind as a critical part of the response to climate change, as well as an opportunity to develop jobs. As many speakers explained, there is a strong business case to be made for it as well. Given the price spikes that have plagued natural gas in New England and elsewhere, it makes sense to diversify power sources. In addition to providing price stability, wind energy has also been shown to suppress wholesale energy prices, saving consumers money.  

Perhaps most significantly, offshore wind power is likely to be the least-cost option in locations where demand is high, energy is expensive, and alternatives are few. This describes much of the Northeast, especially the densely populated area from northern New Jersey up to Massachusetts.

An analysis from AWS Truepower showed several factors that make offshore wind energy a good option in these areas:

•  A growing demand for power, driven in part by new data centers;
•  An already-congested transmission grid, coupled with the difficulty of either building new     generation close to the load center or adding new transmission lines to bring in power from     outside the area;
•  The proximity of offshore wind energy areas to these load centers along the coast;
•  High localized marginal prices for electricity, making offshore wind competitively priced; and
•  The ability of offshore wind to provide power when demand is greatest.

This last element is especially compelling for utilities, which have to meet a demand for power that changes throughout the day. Unlike onshore wind, which blows most strongly at night, and solar energy, which peaks in the middle of the day, offshore wind picks up in the late morning and continues through the evening hours, matching times of highest demand. According to Bruce Bailey, CEO of AWS Truepower, this fact means that in the New York market, the revenues from offshore wind energy will be about two-and-a-half times that of onshore wind energy.

Whitney Wilson, the engineer who conducted the analysis for AWS Truepower, told me that when they looked at all the factors and then at the potential locations for offshore wind farms, one location stood out: a tract of ocean thirty miles off the coast of Montauk Point on Long Island, within the southern section of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island Wind Energy Area. Building wind farms there, her analysis showed, would provide the biggest bang for the buck.

Developer Deepwater Wind, LLC, won the right to develop the lease area last summer in the U.S.'s first-ever offshore wind lease auction. One likely customer may be the Long Island Power Authority, which put out an RFP for 280 MW of renewable energy, specifically mentioning offshore wind.

Lisa Dix, an organizer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign in New York who was also at the conference, says offshore wind makes perfect sense for Long Island, and complements the Long Island utility's recent approval of a feed-in tariff for solar energy. 

Other utilities seem likely to follow suit as they assess the benefits of offshore wind for their own customers. A greater understanding of these benefits will lead to the full buildout of the RI/MA area and the soon-to-be-leased New Jersey area.

The experience of Deepwater, Cape Wind, and the developers of the DOE-funded demonstration projects will help build the industry supply chain and workforce, and will produce the kind of learning that leads to lower prices for future projects. One such project involves the 2000 MW of the Virginia Wind Energy Area, which Dominion Power now holds the right to develop. While the economics are not currently as compelling in the cheap-energy South, this would change if the early movers achieve the cost reductions they are aiming for.

If states work together, these cost reductions and the development of a robust, domestic supply chain and workforce will happen better, sooner and smarter. Coordinated regional planning will support rapid growth in the industry while driving down costs in a virtuous cycle.

Given the urgency of climate change and the need to move the electric grid beyond fossil fuels as quickly as possible, Congress also has to make the growth of the offshore wind industry a national priority. Passing a long-term extension of the investment tax credit is a critical first step to support the tremendous renewable resource just off our coast.


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