3 challenges facing offshore wind

Source: By Heather Richards, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 4, 2019

Wind power is poised to become the largest renewable power source in the country in 2019. But that blustery growth story isn’t limited to the plains of the Midwest, Texas and the Rockies.

It’s over the waves.

The burgeoning offshore wind industry is expected to boom. State commitments to buy offshore wind power from Maine to Virginia have driven wind proposals from large international companies, huge promises of investment and a scurry in Northeast towns hoping to be central in a supply chain for the 25 gigawatts of wind capacity promised in state pledges. In the most recent example, Massachusetts announced last week that a second offshore wind farm had been chosen to provide 804 megawatts of power (Energywire, Oct. 31).

At the American Wind Energy Association’s offshore conference in Boston last month, the curious, hopeful and eager gathered to rub elbows with federal regulators and energy experts to talk shop, from regulations to power systems and local opposition. But there are numerous obstacles for the industry that could block a boom.

With offshore wind in the wings, here are three challenges discussed in Boston that don’t yet have answers:

The grid isn’t ready

If you look at the areas of California that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is considering for its first offshore wind leases, they don’t overlap with the highest wind power areas. One reason for this is that the grid isn’t ready for the influx of too much power.

Some stakeholders wanted the first steps in offshore to be modest, said Necy Sumait, renewable energy section chief for BOEM’s Pacific outer continental shelf region.

But the problem isn’t California’s alone. The complexities of connection, integration and pulses of tremendous amounts of power are just starting to reveal themselves, experts said.

James Bennett, chief of BOEM’s Office of Renewable Energy Programs, said transmission is an “ill-defined” problem to figure out.

“Nobody was talking about transmission just a couple of years ago,” he said. “What we put in place is a system to ensure that the developers have access to shore, but what we are finding is it’s more complicated than that.”

BOEM is not the regulator for lines of power, though it does regulate rights of way for offshore power. But in its ongoing role of shepherding this rapidly advancing offshore industry, transmission is on BOEM’s plate to some degree.

Acting Director Walter Cruickshank said he sees BOEM’s role as one voice in a conversation that needs to take place, and at times a “facilitator” to guarantee the conversation is taking place about connecting power to a greater grid.

An anti-wind administration?

When Vineyard Wind’s 84-turbine project off the coast of Massachusetts screeched to a halt in midsummer, whispers broke out about the Trump administration’s intentions. The president has more than once made hostile comments about wind, implying that turbines cause cancer and the resource is an unreliable producer of power (Energywire, May 20).

Documents obtained by E&E News through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed a disconnect between fisheries and wind that appeared to be reflected in lead agencies NOAA Fisheries and BOEM. Fishing concerns put the project on hold until a supplemental analysis considers the cumulative impact to fisheries from the burgeoning industry (Climatewire, Oct. 25).

Cruickshank, of BOEM, said in an interview that slowing down and reconsidering impacts is a “reasonable request,” given new data that has emerged since Vineyard’s original environmental analysis and new state promises to add more offshore wind.

He reiterated previous comments about the need to make offshore wind go as smoothly as possible in the first go-round.

“A first project is going to be rough, obviously, but we expect to come out the other side having identified best practices for project design in U.S. waters that will be a good guidepost for everybody else,” he said.

The acting director downplayed worries about a political lack of support for wind power or an administration that has been gung-ho about fossil fuel energy (Climatewire, Oct. 24).

“We continue to get the message that it is about domestic energy, from any and all sources,” he said. “I don’t see that as an issue.”

Price volatility

One thing that’s been clear from wind in places like Texas is that it can give so much power that it creates a negative power price environment.

And that can create havoc for the power system at large and for consumers.

Dan Shreve, head of wind for Wood Mackenzie, said at that conference that when the current rush of wind procurements from states ends, the hard work of “execution” begins.

One challenge that could emerge is wind pulsing onto the grid creating shocks in areas where it’s difficult to move power out.

“I’m introducing many, many gigawatts of offshore wind into a very small space,” Shreve said. “Any kind of significant weather system is going to have a massive impact on power generation for the region.”

Wind scarcity times will push up prices. Prices will collapse when the wind is heavy, he said.

“You run the risk of overloading the system,” he said. “You are basically pounding it with offshore wind.”

He added that these concerns could be met with storage and greater transmission planning.