Editorial: The Unlimited Power of Ocean Winds

Source: By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, New York Times • Posted: Monday, August 29, 2016

Ariel Davis 

The first offshore wind farm in American waters, near Block Island, R.I., was completed this month. With just five turbines, the farm won’t make much of a dent in the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels, but it shows the promise this renewable energy source could have. When the turbines start spinning in November, they will power the island, which currently relies on diesel generators, and will also send electricity to the rest of Rhode Island.

Putting windmills offshore, where the wind is stronger and more reliable than on land, could theoretically provide about four times the amount of electricity as is generated on the American grid today from all sources. This resource could be readily accessible to areas on the coasts, where 53 percent of Americans live.

This technology is already used extensively in Britain, Denmark, Germany and other European countries, which have in the last 15 years invested billions of dollars in offshore wind farms in the North, Baltic and Irish Seas. In 2013, offshore wind accounted for 1.5 percent of all electricity used in the European Union, with all wind sources contributing 9.9 percent of electricity. By contrast, wind power made up only 4.7 percent of electricity in the United States last year.

While electricity generated by offshore wind farms is more expensive than land-based turbines, costs have fallen with larger offshore turbines that can generate more electricity. Construction firms have also become more efficient in installing offshore farms.

The United States is coming late to offshore wind partly because federal and state governments were slow to support it. A bitter fight between residents on Cape Cod and developers of a wind farm in Nantucket Sound known as Cape Wind, along with financial problems, helped torpedo that project and may have discouraged others from pursuing similar ventures.

But in recent years, the Obama administration has issued regulations to encourage the lease of federal waters to private wind-power developers. And states like Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York have pledged to support the nascent industry by requiring local utilities to buy the electricity that offshore turbines generate.

Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, recently signed legislation that directs utilities to purchase 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power — or about 2 percent of the total wind-energy capacity of the United States in 2015. New YorkState has committed to getting 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and officials say a big chunk of that will come from offshore wind farms.

There are 22 other offshore wind projects in various stages of development across the country, according to a recent report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Many of them are in the Northeast, including a proposal before the Long Island Power Authority for a wind farm 30 miles off the coast of Montauk that would supply electricity to the Hamptons. The Atlantic coast is a good place to build wind farms because the water is relatively shallow, which makes it cheaper to install the turbine platforms. Pacific coast waters, being much deeper, would require placing turbines on more expensive floating platforms.

A few decades ago, the idea of harnessing the power of ocean winds seemed entirely impractical. In the next 10 years, these offshore farms should become commonplace.