Offshore Oil vs. Offshore Wind: Guess Where the Action Really Is

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | June 30, 2017, 11:23 am EST
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This post is a part of a series on Clean Energy Momentum

There’s plenty of energy off our coasts. Too bad the Trump Administration is looking the wrong way.

Yesterday was a momentous one for offshore energy, but maybe not in the way that some folks think. Sure, the administration opened up for public comment its plan to offer new offshore oil/gas leases (even if industry might say, “Meh”). But much more important for our future economy—and our planet—was what happened to move US offshore wind forward, the latest in a line of notable recent happenings at home and abroad.

Credit: phault

Massachusetts offshore wind happenings

Massachusetts took an important step forward in having the state’s utilities ask wind developers to bid to supply some 400 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, enough to power almost 200,000 Bay State homes. The move, required under the state’s 2016 energy diversity law, is aimed at bringing in the first tranche of what will eventually be at least 1600 megawatts of offshore wind for those utilities’ customers.

It’s easy to be excited about another step toward adding such a powerful technology to our nation’s clean energy toolbox. For Massachusetts, getting the state out there looking for solid offshore wind projects and prices in a competitive way is a vital next step.

Economic development means grabbing hold of good, new areas for business and jobs. We’re already seeing US industry step up to the plate—including by readying the type of specialized ships that we’ll need to get those wind turbines where they need to be.

Tackling climate change and protecting our environment means investing in expanding low-carbon energy options in responsible ways. It’s telling that yesterday’s move has garnered very positive reactions from environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation and the Conservation Law Foundation (who also produced this great infographic laying out the strong case for offshore wind in New England).

Leadership means not waiting for others to go first.

Yesterday’s step keeps Massachusetts firmly in contention when it comes to building a new industry on our shores, making a new carbon-free electricity source a reality, and leading on US offshore wind.

Offshore wind around the US, and globally

The Massachusetts move is just the latest in all kinds of noteworthy steps for this exciting technology. Here’s a sampling:

  • Maryland approves support for two projects: Last month two offshore wind projects earned approval from Maryland’s regulators. The projects total 368 megawatts, which’ll generate enough electricity for well over 100,000 homes. It could start to come online around 2020.
  • The first US offshore wind farm is making it real for our country: When the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island went online late last year, it made history as the first offshore wind farm anywhere in the Americas. It also proved that seeing is believing, as boat tours take people to see the turbines up close and personal. Those include the important tradespeople who we’re going to need to make the next offshore wind farms happen—steelworkers, pipefitters, electricians, and more—and the politicians who are helping to create a welcoming environment.
  • Two big projects go online off Germany: Just this week, DONG Energy—the largest owner of offshore wind in the world, and one of the companies vying to supply Massachusetts—brought two more projects online 30 miles off Germany’s shores. The two projects’ 97 turbines add 582 megawatts to the global total of more than 15,000. And they help add to the excitement fueled by recent record-low prices for future European offshore wind projects.
  • Bigger turbines are under development: While land-based wind turbines are typically 2-3 megawatts each, open water off our shores provides opportunities for using bigger, more powerful turbines to bring the costs down. Recent offshore projects, including Block Island and the new German projects, use turbines of around 6 megawatts. But the latest turbine, unveiled earlier this month, is more than 50% more powerful. Still larger ones are on the way.

Investing in the future, not the past

So, where’s our offshore energy scene headed? There’s a good bet that offshore wind is going to grow to be an important piece of our energy mix. Even the Trump Administration seems to recognize the importance of this powerful new (new to the US) technology.

If we’re smart, we’ll make sure that happens, and quickly. Our country’s energy future does include offshore. But it’s wind, not oil.

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  • Reasons off pollution is also manufacturing and logistics. To make and deliver electric car factory need more resources and make more emissions than for gasoline car. Is this wind generators has same problem? Hope We don’t need hundreds of them to turn off one old energy station?

    • ucsjrogers

      Actually, Instagirl, we’re in good shape on both counts. UCS’s own analysis found that “battery electric cars generate half the emissions of the average comparable gasoline car, even when pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for”: http://www.ucsusa.org/clean-vehicles/electric-vehicles/life-cycle-ev-emissions#.WWYzI1GQxM0.

      For wind turbines, the energy payback — how long before a turbine has produced is much energy as got used up making it — is measurable in months. One study, for example, found that “a wind turbine with a working life of 20 years will offer a net benefit within five to eight months of being brought online”: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140616093317.htm. You can find more information about how different energy sources stack up in that regard from the US National Renewable Energy Lab here: http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/sustain_lca_results.html.

      As for numbers, there’s value in having assets spread over a variety of “facilities” (individual wind turbines) instead of all in one (a centralized power plant). Think of it as a portfolio approach to electricity generation.

      Important questions, and ones we’ve got good answers to. Thanks.

      – John

      • Thanks for answer. Great news! I will make more research and change my mind. Earth may have chance…

  • Fred Gunter

    Oil or wind, humans continue to kill everything including ourselves with the false hope of free energy to propel economic growth. Scientists need to come clean on wind energy costs to the environment.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for weighing in, Fred. This scientist, at least, is clean, and clear, on the environmental costs and benefits. Our experience with offshore wind in this country is slim, to say the least. So we draw from environmental results elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe, and apply them as best as possible to this country; we site things well when we do get offshore wind happening; and we adjust as necessary based on our evolving understanding and expanding knowledge base. We know we need to get off fossil fuels, and offshore wind, by all indications, can be an important part of that. – John