Blowin' In the Wind

Offshore Wind Farms May Prevent An Energy Crisis

by Wendy Williams

The energy bill is back in focus in Washington, and -- using the current crisis as an excuse -- certain eyes are sharply focused yet again on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). ANWR-obsessed Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, recently suggested in a letter to The New York Times that the amount of oil from the refuge would "replace" 30 years of Saudi Arabian oil or 50 years of Iraqi imports -- and that the oil could be flowing "safely in a minimum of one to two years."

Get real. The idea that ANWR would produce that quickly -- and safely -- is both absurd and dangerous. (Just last week a man accidentally shot a hole in the trans-Alaska pipeline with a hunting rifle, causing an estimated 286,000-gallon oil spill.) Moreover, no one knows how much oil will be found within those oil-bearing layers of rock. The United States imported about 10 billion barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia between 1969 and 1999. Many geologists' best estimates put ANWR's oil at substantially below that amount. Prudhoe Bay produced a total of 9 billion barrels -- and few people expect ANWR to produce more than that.

Princeton emeritus Ken Deffeyes estimates that ANWR "might" produce half as much as Prudhoe Bay, "and that's generous." Deffeyes points out that the region is not a complete mystery to oil geologists, who have been working in and studying the North Slope since the 1920s. The current yearning to drill in the wildlife refuge, he believes, is based on estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey that, according to Deffeyes, are probably inaccurate.

"There's a 30 percent chance you would be severely disappointed, and that it would not be worth extending the pipeline over there," Deffeyes says. The retired geologist, who grew up in the oil fields and considers the smell of hydrocarbons to be one of the most appealing aromas on earth, could hardly be called a radical environmentalist. But, as he points out in his just published book Hubbert's Peak (which should be required reading for anyone who drives a car), the world's oil reserves are well on their way to depletion.

What we should be concentrating on is kicking our carbon addiction. Carbon, in one form or another, is poisoning our air, destroying our land, overloading our oceans, and causing endless international violence. We don't need to perpetuate this destruction by drilling in ANWR.

Power in the Wind

There are other options. In Europe, offshore wind power is the Next Big Thing in energy production. This summer, Germany announced it would phase out nuclear power and replace it with offshore wind. Nearly simultaneously, the United Kingdom announced that it would aggressively push offshore wind development, adding that, if all potential sites were developed, offshore wind would produce 300 percent of that island's current electricity needs.

We have this same opportunity, literally, on our own East Coast. Offshore wind energy in the United States has a potential so large that, in combination with serious national conservation measures, it could -- just possibly -- replace the 6 million barrels of oil imported into the United States every day. No one knows for sure, because there has yet to be a comprehensive study done in this country. (European nations have been working on the problem for years.)

Entrepreneurs are pushing for two U.S. offshore wind proposals now. Cape Wind Associates is about to file preliminary permit requests for a plant to be built five miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Spokesmen for the company say the proposed plant, expected to cost more than a half-billion dollars to build, will supply about the equivalent of 2 million barrels of oil each year. The company expects to build 150 to 175 wind turbines, and the plant is expected to produce as much as 420 megawatts of electricity. (One megawatt can power 10,000 100-watt light bulbs for 1 hour.) That's small potatoes in the world of global or even national energy needs, but it's an encouraging start, particularly when you think that this plant really could be up and delivering energy within the next several years.

"Nobody doesn't want cleaner air," says Cape Wind head Jim Gordon. "Five miles off the coast of Massachusetts lies an awesome energy resource. It will produce zero emissions, consume zero water and discharge zero pollutants."

Cape Wind Associates, if it succeeds, expects to build the first offshore wind plant in the United States. The second, not quite as far along, could be built off the northeastern coast of Long Island. This group, known as STAR, (Standing for Truth About Radiation) expects to release a report and to hold public discussions on possible offshore wind sites sometime around the end of November.

Scott Cullen, counsel for STAR, talks messianically about the potential of offshore wind for Long Island: "The wind is free for all time," he says. "The amount of capacity is just limited by the amount of machines you put out there. . .Wind machines can be up and running in a matter of months." Well, not exactly. But many people do believe that Cullen may not be too far off the mark.

Better than Land-Based Wind

Land-based wind farms have a series of drawbacks that have made investors cautious, but offshore wind appears to solve just about all these problems. The most important limitation, of course, is wind. Finding a land-based site with dependable wind is not that easy. Offshore wind has a decided advantage here. Ocean winds in many areas blow with a steady strength and dependability that calms investors' nerves.

The second most important limitation for land-based wind is -- land. In most parts of the world, the land for large wind farms is simply not available. Nowhere is this truer than in Europe and in the northeastern United States. So -- why not turn to the oceans? There are plenty of shallow, shoally areas where we cannot build homes that make perfect wind farm sites. (The general rule of thumb is currently that the sites cannot be under more than 60 feet of water at high tide.) Land-based wind farms also have drawbacks for people who live near them. They are noisy and not particularly attractive. Offshore wind solves these problems, because few people will live near them. (Some Nantucket Islanders have worried that the turbines in the distance will mar their oceanic views, but Gordon says the turbines will be nearly invisible, and others say that's a small price to pay for energy that is pollution-free.)

Bruce Bailey, head of the Albany-based AWS Scientific, is an expert in siting wind facilities. Bailey has been involved in both the Cape Cod and the Long Island projects, and he believes that offshore wind will play a growing role in the energy mix for the East Coast. "The wind industry has had a difficult time getting established because the utility industry has been restructuring over the last five years on a state-by-state basis rather than on a national basis. This makes it time-consuming and expensive for small entrepreneurs to get in the game," he says. "But the market for renewable energy has finally come into its own over the past year."

Costs and Benefits

The precise economics of producing offshore wind energy remain unclear. The American Wind Energy Association, a group consisting of corporate members who are investing in land-based wind energy, claim that the cost of electricity from large, utility-scale wind systems has dropped from 38 cents per kilowatt hour to about 4 cents. The organization projects a drop of yet another 1 cent per kilowatt-hour within the next few years. The major cause of the drop is a vast improvement in materials technology.

Those costs put on-shore wind almost in the ballpark with oil and gas (which fluctuate wildly). But if Deffeyes and his ilk are correct -- that the world's supply of oil will begin to tighten in the next few years, then eventually disappear -- wind power production will become increasingly price competitive.

What offshore wind has in its favor, compared to land-based wind, is an eventual advantage of scale. The Cape Cod plant is expected to put out no more than 420 megawatts of electricity at peak. But some entrepreneurs say the number of turbines in future wind farms may increase. Indeed, on April 5 of this year, the British government gave permission for the construction of 500 wind turbines in its offshore waters -- expected to be able to produce as much as 1,620 megawatts of energy.

As the world gets more organized in the field of climate-change mitigation, offshore wind plants will be worth much more than just the energy they produce. They will be valuable for the pollution they don't. As governments set up incentives for clean energy -- or disincentives for dirty power -- offshore wind plants may become as attractive to people in the energy business as they are now to environmentalists.

The biggest obstacle the U.S. faces right now is that -- unlike in Europe -- no one has studied the potential for offshore wind in this country. What Americans should be doing while we debate our energy future is finding out the fastest way to get the best analysis possible of how many kilowatt hours are out there in the oceans, blowing away in the wind.

Back to