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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Is Offshore Windpower Coming to the US?

The nation's first offshore wind development may be coming to Texas. The Lone Star State has signed an agreement with Galvestone-Offshore Wind, a division of Louisiana-based Wind Energy Systems Technologies (WEST), to build a 150-MW development off the coast of Galveston Island. The development will sit on 11,355-acre situated about seven miles off the coast of the island and leased from the state.

Jerry Patterson, Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, who approved the lease declared, "Today marks a new era for energy development in America, and what better place to begin than Texas. Texas knows energy, and we’re ready to lead the nation toward establishing clean, reliable coastal wind power as an energy reality."

The aggreement allows WEST to begin construction of two 80-foot meteoroligal towers on the lease site to begin collecting wind speed measurements and other data. The towers will be financed with $3-5 million of WEST's project funds and will collect data to confirm the suitability of the site for windpower development and to determine the optimum placements for the wind turbines. This valuable data will also be used by the Texas General Land Office to prove the Gulf’s wind possibilities, perhaps paving the way for more offshore development in the region.

Additionaly, while meteorological measurements are collected, the company will run studies of bird migration patterns for state and federal permits. This will likely to be the largest hurdle for the developer to clear as has often been the case for wind developments. WEST will focus on the 2006 spring migration and use the data to plan how best to reduce the wind energy development’s potential impact on birds.

Assuming the research phase confirms the suitability of the site, a construction phase will begin in which WEST will erect 50 turbines expected to generate 150 megawatts (peak). No confirmation on which turbine manufacturer they will contract with but those numbers assume 3.0 MW turbines likely with the hub of each turbine rising 260 feet above the sea, and turbine blades up to 55 yards long. The construction phase may cost as much as $300 million and take 5 years [notice this is significantly longer and more expensive than a similalry sized land-based wind development].

During this initial research and construction phases, which will last an estimated 12-18 months for the former and up to five years for the latter, WEST will begin making lease payments of $10,000/year until power production actually begins. At that time, the lease structure changes and WEST begins paying the state an escalating royalty, starting at 2.5% for the first eight years, rising to 4.5% for the next eight years, and capping at 5.5% for the final 14 years. The state should earn a minimum of $26.5 million in royalties over the 30-year lease. These funds will all go into the state's Permanent School Fund (as do royalties from natural gas and oil leases).

As Patterson recognizes, "This is important, because while oil and gas have been good for Texas, we need to think long-term and find new ways to put money into the Permanent School Fund. Oil and gas won’t last forever.

Once completed, the wind farm is expected to produce enough electricity to power about 40,000 homes. According to the Texas General Land Office:

"an equivalent amount of electricity would require about 20.7 million barrels of oil, or 6.5 million tons of coal, over the 30-year lease. If burned to generate electricity, that much fossil fuel would release 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. About 150 square miles of forest would have to be planted to absorb that much carbon dioxide. Similarly, a 150 MW wind energy development could prevent 21,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and almost 10,000 tons of nitrogen oxides from being emitted over the life of the lease. The wind farm will also conserve more than 6 billion gallons of water over the lifetime of the lease that would have been used in the cooling system of a typical power plant."

Texas is currently second only to California in total wind power production. However, the state legislature has mandated that 10,000 MW of renewable energy capacity must be developed by 2025. Current wind power generating capacity in the state is about 2,000 megawatts, with most of the wind turbines located in the western part of the state. Offshore wind power in the Gulf of Mexico may be a viable resource to tap in order to meet these targets.

Two other large offshore wind turbine farms have been proposed in the United States, one about four miles off the south shore of Long Island, New York, and the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Both are in federal, not state waters. The New York project is still awaiting approval by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Cape Wind project faces opposition from resident notables (mostly rich New England Democrats) because of fears it would ruin the ocean view from shore.

Still, the Texas project is not expected to produce a Watt of power for at least 5-6 years so either of these other projects, which have been in the works much longer, may still upstage the Texas project.

It is good to see more of these projects being proposed as each one increases the likelyhood that an offshore wind farm will be built in the United States. I don't think it will take long after the first one is built for people to begin to recognize their potential and to start to softening their attitudes towards offshore wind.

Really, which would you rather have off your coast, a Liquified Natural Gas terminal (a.k.a. terrorist bullseye), an oil refinery, or a wind farm? Which really has the larger environmental impact? Or would you rather simply stop using electricity? I thought not, so perhaps we ought to turn to this clearly least-bad alternative.

  • Texas General Land Office News Release

  • Texas Offshore Wind Development Projects site

  • Texas Offshore Wind Developmentmap

  • A hat tip to Green Car Congress


    Anonymous said...

    Texas has the second best wind potential energy in the U.S. and the western tip has excellent solar potential as well.

    However, is this wind farm hurricane-proof?

    Jesse Jenkins said...

    I was waiting for the hurricane question. This, to me, does seem to be a major drawback to situating an offshore wind farm in the Gulf of Mexico rather than, say, Nantucket Sound. If this hurricane season's ferocity can be expected to become a new norm (and given the higher surface temps in the Gulf, it may be) then this is a serious concern.

    On the same note though, are those wind farms in the Western tip of the state tornado-proof?

    Anonymous said...

    As much as I am all about alternative energy sources, I have to say I'm not convinced wind farms are any more ecologically sound - either on land or in the ocean - than a damn. Any major change to a substrate can cause huge impact on how that ecosystem is balanced.

    I vote for an increase in small, per-home solutions - if you spread out and create smaller solutions per household, then your not making a HUGE impact on forest or off-shore ecosystems (well, outside of the fact that your building a house or store or what have you in the first place).

    If every household in America can have a television - I think its completely possible for every one to have a wind or solar system in their backyard. This would eliminate the need for huge energy farms, and help spread the impact on the environment, so to overall hit to the world is not so severe.

    Jesse Jenkins said...

    Kristen, you've got a good point about distributed generation (i.e. micro solar/wind on houses/businesses etc.). I agree that the environmental impact is much lower - why build in a new area when you can build on top of already urbanized land?

    However, at this point in time, at least, there are economies of scale involved that make generating power from a large wind farm much cheaper than generating that same power from a micro-wind turbine on someone's house. Also, while this isnt necessarily the case for solar, the number of suitably windy sites for wind generation that are in an urban area are limited (Chicago does comes to mind though). Most are in farm/grazing land/prairie, offshore or on ridgelines. So, while it may be worthwhile for a few farmers, ranchers, coastal residents or other non-urban residents to put up wind power on their land, most urban/suburban home owners sadly dont have the wind resource to take advantage of (we don't typically like to live in really windy places).

    Those who do have such a resource should certainly take advantage of it. This applies for solar as well which, while it currently is not as cheap as micro wind, is still dropping in price and is often viable with incentives (see the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy to see what incentives are available for you). Solar resources are also much more widespread than wind resources, even in urban areas. Finally, residential generation of power has to compete with retail power costs, not the cheaper wholesale costs that industrial-scale wind farms have to beat.

    As for the environmantal impact of wind farms being equivalent to a dam, that I think is an overstatement. While there certainly is an impact, and the impact is likely greater for offshore farms which have to lay underground powerlines and sink foundations into the seafloor for the turbines, it is not comperable to the damage caused by dams. Dams completely alter the entire ecosystem - they obstruct the entire flow of the river, cause water levels to rise and flows to slow down for miles up stream, present a nearly impassible barrier for fish (not counting fish ladders), generally bring an end to seasonal floods which were part of the normal ebb and flow for eons etc.

    The impact of wind farms is minor in comparison - their footprint lies on only a small fraction of the area of the farm (i.e. only where power lines, turbine towers etc. sit). They do not entirely obstruct any part of the ecosystem which can go on around the towers. Furthermore, the powerlines are buried which may have an impact when they are being laid but after that, they are nearly invisible to the ecosystem. Yes, the installation of the farm will involve an industrial construction process which will be invasive, but after completion, the ecosystem would surely be able to adjust to the presence of the turbine towers spaced at distances as far apart as 1/4-1/3 a mile.

    Anyway, all energy generation sources have an ecological footprint. As usual, it is the least-bad alternative we ought to look for and wind power has perhaps the lightest ecological footprint of any power source - excepting perhaps distrubted generation, as you mention, Kristen, as it's footprint lies on already decimated ecosystems, i.e. urban lands...

    Anonymous said...

    I'm a Marine Engineer with WEST(Wind Energy Systems Technology). Unlike other organizations involved in wind generation, our firm has 65 years of experience in Offshore structures dating from the first Offshore Oil Well in Eugene Island. Although I cannot disclose the methodology due to patent applications, the Wind Farm is being designed to withstand a Catagory 5 Hurricane.

    Heiko said...

    The link is in German, they calculate the lowest cost option for providing all of greater Europe's (1.1. billion people) electricity from renewable sources, assuming today's component costs. They find a cost of 4.7 euro cents per kWh with 70% of the supply being provided by large wind power installations in remote regions.

    Back-up requirements are low, because long distance electricity transmission allows smoothing effects: if the wind doesn't blow in the Sahara, it'll most likely blow over the North Sea.

    In a scenario that only allows transmission within Germany and Denmark costs are over 10 euro cents per kWh, and even that scenario assumes large wind power plants.

    I don't know whether anybody's calculated an entirely distributed scenario (micro wind, micro biomass CHP, micro hydro, small scale solar thermal and PV), but I'd guess the cost would be 50 euro cents per kWh.

    Heiko said...

    Their website is back up, so I can now give you a link in English:

    ISET's work is the best I've seen so far, they make a very convincing case that wind can contribute a lot, at a reasonable cost.

    Highly recommended reading.

    Jesse Jenkins said...

    Thanks Hieko. Cheers...