Offshore wind farms and their discontents
Entrepreneurs who want bring offshore wind farms to the United States are facing staunch opposition and difficult economic calculations.
This story was originally covered by PRI's Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.
Offshore wind is the fastest growing source of electricity in the world, but the United States has been slow to harness the power of wind at sea. While Europe has 40 offshore wind farms operating today and 20 more in the works, the United States has precisely zero.
A number of companies are trying to change that, including Google. The search engine giant announced that it's teaming up with a New York financial firm to fund the construction of a huge underwater transmission line. The grid would connect future wind farms off the mid-Atlantic coast.
The U.S. is blessed with some of the best offshore wind in the world. By government estimates, the wind off the Atlantic Coast, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes could potentially generate four times the amount of electricity than that currently produced by all of our existing power plants combined.
"We are the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind," Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind, told PRI's Living on Earth. Cape Wind is a Massachusetts company planning to construct the nation's first offshore wind farm. It will consist of 130 huge turbines mounted on giant towers driven deep into the shallow seafloor and close to transmission lines on land.
If and when it's built, the Cape Wind project will produce enough electricity to power to nearly a quarter of a million homes, with no climate change emissions. According to Gordon, "Cape wind is the largest single greenhouse gas mitigation initiative in the United States."
Not everyone is on board with the Cape Wind project, however. "It's easy to get dazzled by the notion that wind has to be cheap, you know, the wind is free," Jonathan Haughton, a senior economist at Beacon Hill Institute, told Living on Earth. Over the years the free-market, think-tank has produced a series of reports that conclude Cape Wind will hurt tourism, and lower property values, now Haughton says the project is just too expensive.
Cape Wind was projected to cost 750 million dollars. Today the construction costs have more than tripled. "Wind power that's built out at sea is just the enormously high cost of building the windmills in the first place," according to Haughton. "It's the capital costs that's the killer compared to onshore wind. If it had to operate on a market basis it simply wouldn't start."
Offshore wind power can be more than twice as expensive as wind generated on land or electricity produced by burning fossil fuels or nuclear power. Offshore wind requires special barges and costly equipment during construction and the towers and turbines have to be built to weather corrosive seawater and violent storms.
"What they want to do is have Massachusetts' ratepayers pay for the cost of developing Cape Wind when there are lower priced competitive alternatives available," according to Washington attorney Glenn Benson, representing The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. Fossil fuel billionaire Bill Koch is co-chair of the alliance and one of its largest financial backers.
Supporters of offshore wind say its a long-term investment in the future that the added cost today is a small price to pay not just for clean, renewable electricity, but for launching a new industry that could add tens of thousands of jobs. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts by the year 2030 we'll need a hundred Cape Wind sized projects.
At the first gubernatorial debate in Massachusetts, Cape Wind was a major issue. Democrat Deval Patrick was the only candidate who supported the project. He said, "It's amazing that only in Massachusetts can we say that a project that has taken ten years to get from concept to final approval is hasty."
"It shouldn't take this long," Cape Wind's Jim Gordon told Living on Earth. "While we've gone through this ten year tortuous process, the Europeans and now even the Chinese are blowing past us in terms of the off shore wind industry."
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."