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Study: Offshore winds a mega-resource

Nov 10, 2009 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Alex Kuffner and Peter B. Lord The Providence Journal, R.I.

There is more than enough wind off the mid-Atlantic seaboard to power every coastal state from North Carolina to Massachusetts, according to a new study presented in Rhode Island.

But offshore wind experts who spoke at a conference in Newport said there is still some question whether there's enough political will or societal support to tap a potentially unlimited source of clean energy.

Willett M. Kempton, a professor at the University of Delaware, told the audience at the eighth annual Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium that a study he and his colleagues conducted using a decade of satellite data and information collected from federal meteorological buoys shows that annual offshore wind resources in the region amounted to 330 gigawatts or nearly five times the estimated energy use in nine coastal states including Rhode Island.

If offshore wind were developed to its full potential in those states -- a scenario that would mean tens of thousands of turbines in waters up to 100 meters deep -- it could theoretically also power all the cars in the region and provide all of its heating needs.

"There is a very large resource out there," said Kempton, director of the university's Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration and a professor in the College of Ocean, Earth and Environment. "If you're going to do energy planning for Delaware, Rhode Island or most of the states in our region, you cannot ignore offshore wind."

Kempton worked with other researchers at the University of Delaware and scientists at Stanford University on the 2007 study, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

In his presentation Nov. 3, he said that Rhode Island and Delaware, where large offshore wind farms are being developed, are ahead of other states racing to install turbines in their waters. They're also ahead of the country in terms of energy policy, he said.

"The federal government is not going to catch up with us for a while," he said.

It was one caveat offered during his largely optimistic presentation on the future of offshore wind in the United States. Other speakers at the three-day conference, which focused on marine wind farms and attracted experts from around the country and Europe, were also measured in their assessment of the industry.

Mitchell T. Baer, director of the Office of Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy, said that for too long national energy policy ignored renewable power, including offshore wind. He spoke of what he called the "inertia of the status quo," saying momentum will pick up when major projects are developed. Cape Wind, the controversial 130-turbine wind farm proposed off Cape Cod still awaiting federal approval, could be one test case.

"If it goes forward, you've got one big domino that's going to fall," he said.

Other key proposals include Deepwater Wind's two projects in Rhode Island, which would have more than 100 turbines producing 405 megawatts in total, and projects in development in New Jersey.

Daniel Cohen, president of Fishermen's Energy -- one of the New Jersey developers -- told the approximately 180 people at the conference that he had doubts about support from society and government to install hundreds, if not thousands, of turbines offshore.

"Quite frankly, I'm not sure if the United States is willing to make that commitment," Cohen said. "We're going to continue trying to develop our offshore wind farm, but it's really a question of politics of state and federal governments."

Still, Jim Lanard, managing director of Deepwater Wind, said offshore wind farms make a lot of sense in the Northeast.

Each offshore turbine can create 50 percent more power than each one on land, he said. In the Northeast, the wind farms would be near population centers. And they've been operated since 1991 in Europe, so there is plenty of data available.

He said he hopes Deepwater will be the first company to develop an offshore wind farm in the United States, but the company wants other wind farms to do well, too, because that will attract turbine manufacturers to move to the United States from Europe.

Some $12 billion to $18 billion in wind development is being planned on the East Coast, he said. But half that money or more will go to Europe if manufacturers cannot be persuaded to move their operations to the United States.

Manufacturers won't come to this country, he said, unless they are guaranteed 100 orders a year for 10 years.

"Development won't be quick," Lanard said. "We won't see the first steel in the water before 2012."

The permitting challenges are daunting, Lanard said. Deepwater must comply with 17 federal reviews that will cost the company tens of millions of dollars for analyses and research.

After his presentation, Kempton was asked if he thought the United States would be able to create a manufacturing industry for offshore wind, which is the great hope of policymakers who believe it would generate long-term jobs and help revive the country's economy.

"It'll happen, but you need to have a market," he said.

Barry A. Costa-Pierce, Rhode Island's Sea Grant director and chairman of the conference organizing committee, said he was impressed by the opportunities and challenges offshore wind power offers to Rhode Island.

"This is the greatest opportunity of our lives to make an impact on climate change, renewable energy and food -- 80 percent of our seafood is imported," said Costa-Pierce. He added that construction of the wind farm would be an enormous construction job that should involve private industry, state government and university scientists .