Offshore Wind Turbines: What You Need To Know Now

Offshore Wind Turbines

Wind power is a sustainable and versatile source of renewable energy. Wind turbines generate energy in a cost-effective manner safe for the environment. This renewable energy source is cheaper than fossil fuels and more ecologically friendly. Until now, most wind turbines have been land-based. But the industry is changing. Technological development has allowed turbines to move offshore. Wind farms then connect to the onshore power grid using buried undersea cables. Once onshore, the produced energy moves through load centers located at the coastline. From there, the energy distributes into the electrical grid for use by homes and businesses. But there’s more to know about offshore wind than how it gets to the power grid. Here’s what you need to know.

Offshore Wind Offers Great Energy Resources

Offshore Wind Offers Great Energy Resources

The US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy estimates 7,200 terawatt-hours of offshore wind turbine capacity available within 200 nautical miles of the United States shorelines. That’s almost twice our national annual consumption. It’s doubtful America will ever build wind farms to take advantage of all capacity. But the research shows wind power offers a workable renewable energy source for every US state in the coming decades.

Offshore Wind Turbines are Already In Use

The first American commercial offshore wind project came online in 2016, off Rhode Island’s shoreline. The Block Island Wind Farm is a 30-megawatt project built from five wind turbines. These connect to the Block Island power grid via undersea cabling, providing all the island’s energy needs. The remaining power is then integrated into Rhode Island’s mainland grid. While United States development has lagged behind Europe, multiple offshore wind farm projects are completed or are now underway off the coasts of Virginia, New Jersey, North Carolina, and four other states.

The US Offshore Wind Industry is Taking Off

Our government, universities, and private wind companies collaborate on solving problems facing American offshore wind development--like hurricanes. These partnerships develop wind technology faster than it would otherwise. There are expectations the offshore wind industry could provide America with as much as 86 GW of power by 2050. Today, offshore wind provides less than half a gigawatt.

The Best Offshore Winds are In Deep Water

Close to 60 percent of the nation’s offshore wind resources are located in areas where conventional foundations like steel piles won’t work. Because of this, research has focused on developing new foundation types for these locations. While the same technology used for offshore oil rig platforms played into the design of early offshore turbines, now turbines use a variety of bases designed to fit the needs of deep water and high wind. Foundations use concrete, steel, or other materials, and can connect to the seabed at one point, three points, or not at all.

Offshore Wind Turbines Can Float

Europe has used floating wind turbines for over a decade. Now they’re coming to America. In November 2020, Maine announced plans for the nation’s first offshore floating wind farm, located more than 20 miles offshore. The wind farm is a pilot program designed to spur more floating offshore wind interest and research. Floating wind turbines have significant advantages over traditional offshore turbines. They work in deeper water where winds are stronger. Located over the horizon, they cut coastal visual pollution and noise concerns. Finally, in-port assembly is possible, an option not available with traditional offshore turbines. The finished units are towed into place, simplifying construction processes and decreasing overall costs.

Offshore Turbines are Big. Really Big.

Offshore turbines aren’t limited by the same logistical challenges land-based turbines run into as they move along the country’s roads. Because offshore turbines don’t have to account for bridge or tunnel clearances during transport, they can scale up to capture more wind. Offshore wind turbines can have a base twice the height of the Statue of Liberty with individual blades extending another 300 feet--the length of a football field--beyond. For example, the wind turbines at Block Island Wind Farm are 600 feet high. But the Block Island turbines are dwarfed by GE’s newest turbine in development, the Haliade-X. Each Haliade-X turbine will be taller than an 80-story building. GE is preparing several for installation at a new farm off the coast of Massachusetts. These monster turbines can generate 64% more electricity than average wind turbines. The Haliade-X generates so much energy with each turn it can power an average American household for a full week with only ten rotations.

Offshore Wind Development Drives Job Development

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates wind energy could support as many as 600,000 jobs by the end of 2050. That’s seven times the number of people currently employed by the industry. Many of these jobs will be above national averages, including non-degreed positions with median wages around $45,000, like crane and tower operators. But offshore wind turbines will spur jobs in other industries, too. Turbines built on-shore increase port development. Also, US law prohibits the use of foreign-owned vessels to move turbines into place. This means as more offshore wind farms develop, the shipping industry will benefit as more barges and cargo ships are built to move components into place.

Key Takeaway

Although the potential for offshore wind is tremendous, the development will take time. Because wind farms must first perform site studies, conduct research on environmental impacts, and work through a complex permitting process, most projects take more than a decade to complete. As we consider the urgent need for cleaner power options, long wait times may be a point of frustration for many. In light of that frustration, it may be best to consider the Chinese proverb that says “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

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