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Offshore Wind Energy Making Waves in Europe, Starting to in the US

With all the permitting issues and the hassles of building onshore wind energy, it would seem that the industry would look increasingly to constructing turbines offshore. Increasingly it has been closely examining those options but the experience in the United States and in Europe are quite different.

The big thing is cost: Land-based wind facilities cost 50 percent less to build than offshore wind units. While it may be less hassle to build turbines in the middle of the ocean and out of eyesight for most people, developers have to be able to connect the electricity to transmission. And that means building underseas cables before hooking up with the wires that are onshore.

Governments then have to offer a number of incentives if they think this a high priority. So, by the time cost is figured in, it is less trouble to just build a combined-cycled natural gas plant. But if society has placed a premium on reducing carbon emissions, then it has to consider other alternatives. And you see where this headed: round-and-round.

The US Department of Energy would like to have 54,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030, although that does seem out-of-reach. Those scenarios include development in both federal and state offshore areas, including along Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts as well as in Great Lakes and Hawaiian waters, the agency says. Won’t be easy: Cape Wind, the high-profile offshore project planned for the Massachusetts coast has long languished.

While the United States may not be ideal territory for offshore wind energy pursuits, the global markets may present better opportunities. China, in fact, is growing its offshore wind market, while Japan, Korea and Taiwan are in the early stages of development. India, too, is making forays. Europe, though, is the international role model:

Its offshore wind deals account for 10 percent of its annual wind energy installations, says the European Wind Energy Association. The goal, it adds, is to increase those levels from 6,000 megawatts today to 40,000 by 2020 and 150,000 megawatts by 2030, or 14 percent of the EU’s electricity demand.

That’s a tough goal for the same reasons it is in the United States. But in Europe, offshore is just about the only place to build. And costs are falling.

The “London Array” is considered the biggest offshore wind project, located in the Irish Sea off the coast of the UK. It consist of 175 turbines that generate 630 MW of electricity, owned by the Danish utility DONG Energy, E.ON and the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar.

“In the European Union, there is a consensus that offshore wind is part of this mix,” says Peter Asmus, with Navigant Consulting, in a prior talk with this writer. “It will happen there but not as fast as people would hope. The reason that it has a better chance there is that they have carbon constraints and they have a shared infrastructure. And, they don’t have enough land, so they have to go offshore.”

Onshore wind energy is firmly planted in global markets. But offshore wind projects are mainly the domain of Europe, which is the host of roughly 6,000 megawatts of capacity. China, though, has made inroads in the offshore wind area, with Japan, Korea and Taiwan in the early stages of development. And India has become the latest such nation to make forays.

But the United States is still in the hunt. The US Department of Energy is supporting some innovative offshore wind projects. In May, it identified three projects to which it would become involved and give as much as $40 million in research funds: Fisherman Energy’s Atlantic City Windfarm, Lake Erie Energy Development Corp.’s Icebreaker and the University of Maine’s New England Aqua Ventus I project.

The possibilities for offshore wind energy are huge. But the challenges confronting such development are even greater. Those hurdles could eventually be crossed if the whole international community places a price on carbon — moves that would lead to better turbines, lower overall costs and greater reliability.

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