West Coast offshore floating turbine project makes headway, but obstacles remain

Source: Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, February 7, 2014

A demonstration floating offshore wind project in Oregon breezed over another hurdle yesterday, raising hopes that West Coast’s first offshore turbines will begin spinning before the end of the decade.

However, the project’s developers indicated that this new and potentially transformative technology will likely find a more welcoming market in Europe before it is realized at utility scale in the United States.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management yesterday released a determination of no competitive interest for a 15-square-mile offshore area in Oregon that Seattle-based renewable energy developer Principle Power aims to use as a test bed for its floating offshore wind technology.

Principle Power is planning a 30-megawatt offshore wind farm, called the WindFloat Pacific Project, that would consist of five units tethered 16 nautical miles from Coos Bay, bobbing approximately 1,400 feet above the ocean floor.

The formal announcement was made yesterday in Portland, Ore., by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who was joined by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) and BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau.

“This is a really exciting and innovative project,” Beaudreau said. “It involves a floating technology that has enormous potential on the West Coast, where the shelf drops off steeply, as well as around the world. … I’m very pleased to be rolling out renewable energy development offshore on the West Coast, as we have been on the East Coast for several years.”

Europe a more likely initial buyer

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that the West Coast is capable of producing more than 800 gigawatts of wind energy. But today, this potential is difficult to harness because waters off Washington, Oregon and California are often miles deep, making it impossible to pound in the monopiles used to support traditional offshore wind turbines (ClimateWire, Oct. 9, 2013).

Therefore, Kevin Banister of Principle Power, WindFloat’s project manager, hopes his technology will “will start in earnest the conversation about offshore wind in Pacific Coast of the U.S.,” he said.

However, Banister indicated that once the technology is proven at scale, Principle Power is eyeing the European Union as a riper potential market.

“Right now, the markets for offshore wind are certainly more mature in Europe,” Banister said. “Obviously, our prototype has been operating in Europe for over two years now, so we already have something of a European presence.”

Principle Power’s first WindFloat unit was deployed in Europe in 2012, a 2-megawatt turbine located off the coast of Aguçadoura, Portugal.

But Banister insisted that Principle Power sees “huge potential for the technology here in the U.S.”

“We will be looking here, just like we are looking in other markets around the world,” he said.

During yesterday’s press conference, Kitzhaber touted renewable energy development’s potential to bring jobs to his state, but Banister cautioned that although construction of WindFloat Pacific turbines will take place in Coos Bay, the current proposal has, at this point, limited potential for job creation.

“The real job impacts come once an industry gets established,” he said. “There will have to be more of a pipeline than five WindFloats to really start making a long-term, sustainable impact on jobs, but that’s one of the things that we think is exciting about this project — we think it’s sort of the first necessary step towards getting there.”

A signal for West Coast policymakers?

If WindFloat moves forward, it would be the sixth offshore wind lease issued by BOEM and would likely be the first wind farm constructed on the West Coast.

Barring any delays in BOEM’s review process, Banister said, Principle Power hopes to have the units deployed by 2017, at a cost of about $200 million. Now that the Interior has found no competitive interest in the proposed area, Principle Power will prepare a more detailed construction and operations plan, which it hopes to submit to the agency by late 2014.

During yesterday’s press conference, Interior Secretary Jewell indicated that although the impacts of floating wind technology are so far relatively unexplored, her department is hoping to move the project forward as quickly as its process allows.

“I will say with regard to timing that we certainly feel a sense of urgency,” Jewell said. “We’ll be working in concert to expedite this to the extent that we can.”

But before floating wind farms can be deployed at a scale that truly harnesses the West Coast’s vast offshore wind potential, states and the federal government must roll out policies in support of the technology, which is still far from cost-competitive with other power sources.

Jason Busch, executive director of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, said that Oregon has so far shown strong support for renewable energy, but he believes states have so far taken a “piecemeal approach” to supporting offshore wind. He believes renewable portfolio standards and tax credits will not be enough to make the technology cost competitive.

“Ultimately, they are weak compared to the primary tool that we have at our disposal, and that, of course, is pricing carbon,” Busch said.

Banister is hopeful that once WindFloat is seen bobbing in Oregon’s deep ocean waters, policymakers will respond.

“Certainly affirmative policy decisions will help,” Banister said, “but I think that the main hurdle to date is that there has been a lack of recognition of the technical ability to deploy offshore wind in the deep waters of the Pacific, and so the policy discussions that we’d like to see happen, they simply haven’t been happening because nobody understood that it was even realistic to consider offshore wind in the West.”