U.S. forges ahead on offshore wind

The Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm off the coast of the United Kingdom has 88 wind turbines capable of supplying energy to 220,000 homes. (flickr/Statkraft)
The Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm off the coast of the United Kingdom has 88 wind turbines capable of supplying energy to 220,000 homes. (flickr/Statkraft)

When U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced Wednesday the government would lease more than 80,000 acres off the coast of New York for wind turbines, the announcement joined a long list heralding the era of offshore wind energy was upon us.

Jewell tweeted, “big step to spur NY offshore #windenergy—unlocks potential to tap vast #cleanenergy resources in federal waters.”

More than a decade after the announcement of what was supposed to be the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, the United States is still looking for that that first developer to actually build.

Onshore wind farms have proliferated across West Texas and other plains regions where winds are steady and strong, competing with coal and natural gas plants. But offshore, the costs – from corrosion to shipping – quickly multiply.

Commercial-scale projects in Europe and Asia have largely relied on heavy government subsidy, something the U.S. government has so far avoided.

A 2014 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy put the cost of offshore wind energy at more than $5,000 a kilowatt – more than three times that of onshore wind.

Little has changed over the past two years to make offshore wind more attractive, said John Daniel, lead author of the 2014 study, who works as a consultant with the Swiss technology firm ABB.

“We’ve got a technically viable way forward but things are expensive,” he said. “I can never put it past the developer, but I personally don’t see it.”

In the lease sale now pending in New York, the New York Power Authority first expressed interest in the development of a wind farm off the coast of Long Island back in 2011.

In the years since, the federal government sought to determine whether anyone would actually build it and got letters of interest from at least two developers: Energy Management Inc. in Boston and Fishermen’s Energy, which has a pilot wind energy project off the coast of New Jersey.

But if awarded a lease, would the companies actually go forward?

In a 2013 letter to the government, EMI said it would first need to study wind patterns, grid connections and other factors. Even then, they cited future electricity prices, the market for renewable energy credits, technological advancements and a host of other factors to consider.

“The commercial viability of the project would depend upon future conditions occurring closer to the time of project financing, and beyond the control of the parties,” the letter read.

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