Banking on Connections to Spur Offshore Wind

A wind turbine stands next to the Hull, Massachusetts High School near Boston. A new $5 billion project seeks to harnass the offshore wind potential on the Atlantic Coast, connecting wind power with transmission lines to provide a steady flow of energy even when wind is intermittent.


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WASHINGTON—Bringing order to the Internet was one thing, but can Google and a team of fellow investors and energy firms bring an offshore wind power revolution to the East Coast of the United States?

They are going to try, with a $5 billion deep-water transmission cable project designed to connect high-energy ocean wind turbines from Virginia to New Jersey. The electric transmission company Trans-Elect said Tuesday its Atlantic Wind Connection project (AWC) would be built 22 miles offshore in five segments. And its lineup of star investors includes Google, the private equity firm Good Energies, and Japan’s Marubeni Corporation.

Great Potential, Slow Development

The windy Eastern seaboard of the United States packs enough punch to generate all of the electricity needed by Delaware, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, as well as most of the power for New Jersey, Virginia, and South Carolina, renewable energy supporters have calculated from the energy potential maps. Yet the U.S. lags far behind Europe in this area, after being mired in a years-long dispute over whether the turbines would mar the views from Cape Cod. (The federal government signed the first lease on the Cape Wind project last week.)

Financing also has been difficult, especially when there’s plenty of windy land in the Great Plains for less expensive onshore turbines. So even in waters off the coast of Galveston, Texas, where developers hoped to take advantage of lower regulatory hurdles to the launch the first U.S. offshore wind development, the first turbine is expected to go into the water only this year—five years after the project was first announced.

Backers of the Atlantic transmission project want to connect the turbines to guarantee steady power even in intermittent winds, an innovation that has the potential to change the dynamic.

“This can dramatically accelerate development of renewable energy,” said Rick Needham, green business operations director for Google. “This is in line with our commitment to a clean energy future, where we believe that being good environmental stewards makes good business sense.”

Hope for Power and Jobs

The transmission backbone would be designed to connect to the grid onshore at four points: northern New Jersey, southern New Jersey, Delaware, and southern Virginia. It would have the capacity to transmit 6,000 megawatts of energy, which backers say would increase the reliability of the existing power grid and reduce the threat of blackouts.

“Perhaps the most exciting thing of all is that thousands and thousands of new jobs are going to be created by the industry that will be made possible because of the investments,” said Bob Mitchell, chief executive of Trans-Elect.

The jobs numbers the team cited are impressive. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the project could create more than 43,000 permanent operations and maintenance jobs if 54,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines are installed by 2030. That would be about 50 percent more wind capacity than is currently installed onshore across the United States.

Oceana, an ocean conservation group that has urged greater deployment of wind power instead of oil and gas development offshore, estimates that 200,000 new jobs would be made possible through the development of wind energy along the Atlantic coast. But this offshore jobs surge would require a sea change in the industry to include U.S. manufacturers. Denmark’s Vestas and Germany’s Siemens currently manufacture 90 percent of the offshore turbines deployed around the world.

Few Regulatory Obstacles?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must approve the energy transmission project, as would PJM Interconnection, which operates the electric grid in 13 mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia.

The Department of the Interior also must approve the project. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has shown support for offshore wind development, and Mitchell said he expects him to grant permission.

State permits will be needed when the four connection points are developed within three miles of the coast, the point at which states have jurisdiction over the sea. Virtually all governors of mid-Atlantic coastal states have touted ideas for harnessing the 60,000-megawatt potential of the mid-Atlantic ocean winds.

Trans-Elect hopes to begin construction of the first phase in 2013 and said the final phase would likely not be completed until 2021. In addition to government permits, new systems are needed for PJM to monitor and assess consumer costs.

Some of the platforms at sea would be similar to land substations except they could pack more power: Instead of 500- or 800-megawatt capacity, Mitchell hopes to have 1,000-megawatt stations.

The AWC wind turbine farms would be built 22 miles from shore—17 miles farther out than the Cape Wind project that has caused such furor in Massachusetts, which will be built only five miles from the mainland shore. The developers say the turbines would be barely visible from beaches and residences. The oceanic turbines will be larger than their land counterparts, with 90-meter hubs and 60-meter blade lengths.

Most wind turbines onshore are 1.5 megawatts. Mitchell is planning to use high-capacity 5- or 10-megawatt turbines—although those are still in developmental stages.

The system would use high-voltage direct current instead of the high-voltage alternating current found in most wind farms. According to Trans-Elect, HVDC cables are cheaper, have lower energy loss, and use less copper than HVAC cables.

Getting Steady Power From Wind

The backbone transmission idea is designed to address one of the chief drawbacks of wind power—its intermittent availability. But in a study published earlier this year, researchers at the University of Delaware and Stony Brook University showed how wind power flow could be stabilized off the Atlantic Coast if the turbines were electrically connected and meteorologically configured. The study analyzed wind data collected over five years from 11 meteorological stations along 1,500 miles of the East Coast. The AWC project would cover only a portion of that geography, but the research indicated that a mid-Atlantic transmission grid would provide a stable source of energy.

“I very much think that a resource allowing us to connect offshore wind turbines would go a long way in leveling the baseline wind energy available,” said Dana Veron, meteorologist and co-author of the study.

Veron, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, said connecting wind-based generators over an extended area has “demonstrated there [are] very few periods of time with little or no power.”

J. Okray is a reporter for Medill News Service in Washington, D.C.