29 February 2012

A Brief Introduction to Offshore Wind Power

This post aims to provide a broad-brush primer on the development of offshore wind projects in the U.S. and is the first of a two-part series. In the second post, I’ll explore in more detail the nascent proposal for a large wind farm off the coast of Maryland.

Among the alternative methods of power generation that this country and others are looking to develop to increasingly supplement traditional carbon-based energy sources like coal and petroleum, wind power has emerged as somewhat of a darling. Conceptually, it is perhaps the most straightforward to grasp. After all, we’ve been using wind for millennia to power boats, mills and pumps, among other tools. Just hoist some sails, wait for the breeze to pick up, and you’re off and running (or sailing, milling, pumping, etc.).

A wind farm in Texas.
(Image in public domain obtained
via Wikimedia Commons)
Wind-generated power is also, at first glance, not as fraught with some of the controversies that afflict other technologies. The fuel supply (i.e., the wind itself) is endless, free and doesn’t have to be mined or processed. Given that no exhaust or hazardous waste is produced and that, according to most studies, wind turbines don’t substantially affect local ecologies (at least relative to other man-made creations like dams, power lines and tall buildings), there appears to be little negative impact on the environment.

So why aren’t wind turbines being thrown up left and right across the country to help us along the path to energy security? Well, to some extent, they are. If you’ve driven through the right parts of California, Texas or the upper Midwest in the last few years, you’ve undoubtedly noticed. According to data (pdf) from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind energy consumption increased by 350 percent from 2006 to 2010, from 0.264 to 0.924 quadrillion btu (7.74 x 1010 to 2.71 x 1011 kilowatt-hours). Over the same period, wind’s contribution to our total national energy consumption, though still fairly meager, increased from about one quarter of a percent to almost 1 percent.

Existing wind power generating capacity across the U.S.
(Image from U.S. Energy Information Administration)
Of course, there are reasons why these numbers haven’t grown even higher yet. The inconsistency of wind speed with geography and time means that electricity generation varies significantly with location and with the time of day and year. Thus, some locations (e.g., parts of California, Texas and the upper Midwest, etc.) are better suited than others. And even at their best, wind turbines suffer from inherently limited efficiency (capped at 59.3 percent according to Betz’ law) and typically do not operate near full capacity (capacity factors in the ballpark of 30 percent). In order to make wind-generated electricity viable on a large scale, wind farms must have large footprints, stretching on for many tens of square kilometers (although the land beneath turbines is often still available for other uses such as agriculture or grazing). Concerns about aesthetics also sometimes accompany the large size of these farms, not to mention the size of the turbines themselves.

Nameplate generating capacity of existing offshore wind projects
by country as of 2010. (Figure extracted from National Renewable
Energy Laboratory Technical Report NREL/TP-500-40745)
Since a handful of European countries (notably Denmark and the U.K.) began deploying turbines at sea two decades ago, the prospect of harnessing offshore wind has become increasingly popular as a solution to some of the limitations of land-based wind farms. Though untested as yet, offshore wind production offers potential benefits beyond land-based production for the U.S. as well.

Foremost is the size of the resource. Offshore winds are higher velocity and more consistent on average compared to winds over land, leading to higher and more consistent power yields. With fewer concerns about noise pollution at sea, turbines could be designed to rotate at higher velocities, again leading to higher yields. Additionally, the U.S. is blessed with a prodigious coastline, meaning a large prospective area across which turbines could be deployed. The National Renewable Energy Lab has estimated that the U.S.’s gross offshore wind resource (out to 50 nautical miles from shore) is more than 4,000 gigawatts, about four times the country’s current electrical generation capacity. While development of the vast majority of the offshore area included in this estimate is unrealistic (at least in anything resembling the near term) due to a host of environmental considerations, technical constraints and conflicts with shipping and commercial interests, the upshot, as NREL concluded in its 2010 assessment of offshore wind prospects (pdf), is that the size of the resource is not a limiting factor.
U.S. offshore wind resources extending 50 nautical miles from shore at 90 meters height. A minimum wind speed of 7 meters per second is typically considered necessary for potential development. (Figure created by National Renewable Energy Laboratory and retrieved from www.windpoweringamerica.gov/windmaps)
Rather, technological, financial and regulatory issues are the most significant barriers to development of offshore wind. Existing technology for offshore wind power limits the depth at which turbines can be constructed to about 30 meters of water, thus ruling out large expanses of coastal waters (particularly off the west coast where the sea floor drops rapidly with distance from the shoreline) until deeper-water technologies are ready. Accompanying the present technological shortcomings are the myriad operational and engineering difficulties that come along with constructing and maintaining turbines in the rough and tumble (and corrosive) sea. Hence, the up-front costs of large-scale offshore wind farms — think multi-billion dollar projections — are quite high for developers and financiers. Lastly, the lack of regulatory experience for offshore wind projects in the U.S. also promises to slow permitting processes, which could stretch to 7 to 10 years in the NREL’s estimation.

Nonetheless, a handful of states, predominantly in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, already have projects in the regulatory pipeline or are considering proposed projects off their coastlines. Initiated in 2001, the Cape Wind project seeks to install 130 turbines off Massachusetts’ Cape Cod at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion and is the first project to have cleared regulatory permitting hurdles at the local, state and federal levels. With an expected capacity of more than 400 megawatts, Cape Wind could potentially meet the electricity needs of the majority of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Beset by controversy from the beginning stemming from its proposed location and cost, however, its developers still face legal challenges and construction has yet to begin.
Proposed offshore wind projects (and their capacities) that have made "significant progress in the U.S. permitting process" as of 2010. (Figure extracted from National Renewable Energy Laboratory Technical Report NREL/TP-500-40745)
Beyond Massachusetts, New Jersey leads the way with progress toward developing offshore wind. The total nameplate capacity of four proposed projects off the Garden State’s coast is 1050 megawatts, according to NREL’s 2010 report, and in August 2010 Governor Chris Christie (R) signed a bill aimed at fostering offshore wind by providing financial incentives to developers.

Despite ongoing uncertainty over federal financial support, as well as mixed support in their own legislatures and electorates, several other states are also continuing their push for offshore wind. These efforts are, in part, driven by necessity owing to state laws mandating increased production and use of renewable energy in the coming years.

In Maryland, for example, the state's Renewable Energy Standard requires that renewable energy account for 20 percent of the state’s electricity by 2022, and offshore wind is viewed as a crucial step by Governor Martin O’Malley (D). However, his introduction of a bill in 2011 that sought to facilitate a large-scale offshore wind project met with significant opposition in the state legislature, chiefly because of concerns that residential and commercial consumers’ electric bills would be increased significantly to fund the project. Having evidently retooled his plan to address this and other concerns, O’Malley has reintroduced an offshore wind bill in Maryland.

In my next post, I’ll explore Maryland’s proposed plan for offshore wind, with an emphasis on the physical scope of the project and how much it could potentially contribute to the state’s energy needs.


- Schwartz, M. et al. (June 2010) Assessment of Offshore Wind Energy Resources for the United States (Technical Report NREL/TP-500-45889), National Renewable Energy Laboratory, retrieved February 29, 2012. (pdf)

- Musial, W. and Ram, B. (September 2010) Large-Scale Offshore Wind Power in the United States (Technical Report NREL/TP-500-40745), National Renewable Energy Laboratory, retrieved February 27, 2012. (pdf)

09 February 2012

Antarctic Great Lake Glimpsed

UPDATE (16 February 2012,  12:55 pm):  A few follow-up pieces have been posted in the past couple days (see here and here; Nature News has another story with a great accompanying graphic that depicts the drilling operation in better scale; and a nod to Knight Sci Journalism Tracker for keeping an eye on this and collecting the various stories). They provide more context as to why scientists are interested in studying  subglacial lakes. They also discuss the friendly competition among the Russian group (who, though they are the first team to drill to such a lake, haven't yet sampled the water) and separate British and American teams, each of whom are evidently vying to be the first to actually collect subglacial lake water (all from different lakes, importantly). Though the latter two are getting a much later start on drilling, they plan to use hot water drills that can bore through ice at a much faster clip than the mechanical counterpart used by the Russian team. (I can't say it with certainty, but my guess is that the hot water drill(s) they intend to use are similar to those used in constructing the IceCube neutrino observatory near the South Pole, about which I recently wrote for EARTH Magazine. The IceCube hot water drills could bore 2.5-kilometer-deep holes in just a couple days.)

Regardless of who actually samples Antarctic subglacial lake water first--or perhaps rather, who analyzes and publicizes/publishes their results first--my humble opinion is that all the teams, if they can successfully collect samples, are likely to produce individually important findings. After all, there's no guarantee that all the lakes they're attempting to access feature identical conditions or, if present, identical microbial colonies. Each could provide different insights, contributing to a broader picture of the subglacial aqueous environment. Hopefully, when the time comes, whoever covers the story will bear this in mind.

Original Post:

A team of Russian scientists has managed at long last to finish drilling through 3,769 meters of ice below the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to the surface of a buried freshwater lake dubbed Lake Vostok. The achievement, likened in significance to man’s first flight into space by the head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, opens for study an ancient massive lake — 250 kilometers long by 50 kilometers at its widest — that is thought to have been covered by ice for the last 15 to 20 million years.

14 December 2011

Five Interesting Things I Heard About: Nuclear Energy

I’m back with another installment in my new series, “Five Interesting Things I Heard About: [blank].” In the first installment, I relayed ~five interesting comments that University of Wisconsin – Madison mechanical engineering professor Sandy Klein made about solar energy. Klein, also the director of the Solar Energy Lab at UW, was a guest lecturer in a course I’m enrolled in this semester, the topic of which is energy resources … go figure.

(Image of U.S. government in public domain)
We have had quite a few distinguished and fascinating guest speakers actually during the class, each of whom addressed various types of energy, along with aspects of energy science, resource availability and current and future requirements. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to rattle off five interesting things from each of them. But, I did want to at least get to one speaker: Paul Wilson, a nuclear engineer at UW – Madison who works on both technical and policy issues related to nuclear energy. Wilson spoke a few weeks ago about nuclear fuel cycles, reactor technology and nuclear waste polices among other topics.

While he made many interesting points, here are five that stuck out to me:

08 December 2011

A Bit of Bilingual Science Outreach

When you can’t bring the masses to science, bring science to the masses. At least that’s the approach recently for many science outreach programs, including Explorando las Ciencias, or Exploring the Sciences, a bilingual community event held Oct. 23 on Madison’s south side that catered to both Spanish and English speakers. 

30 November 2011

Clustering of Large Earthquakes Explained by Random Variability?

Sumatra, 2004. Chile, 2010. Japan, 2011. Odds are these names and dates ring a bell. The scars are still too fresh and widespread for them to have slipped from memory. They identify, of course, the three largest recorded earthquakes that have occurred in the last 45 years — with magnitudes of 9.1, 8.8 and 9.0, respectively. Add in the 2005 magnitude 8.6 quake that also hit Sumatra, likely triggered by the 2004 event, and you’re talking about the four largest earthquakes in roughly the last half century all occurring within a few years of each other. It seems strange that they have been so bunched up, doesn’t it? 
An aerial view of Minato, Japan taken about a week after the
March 11, 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami that
devastated large swaths of the Japanese coast. (Credit: Lance Cpl.
Ethan Johnson, U.S. Marine Corps, Creative Commons Attribution
2.0 Generic)
In fact, there was a similar sequence of major earthquakes in the middle of the last century as well: Kamchatka, magnitude 9.0, 1952; Chile, magnitude 9.5, 1960 (the largest known earthquake); and Alaska, magnitude 9.2, 1964. No other 9.0+ events were recorded in the 20th century. Throw in a few more 8.5+ quakes in the same time frame, and you’ve got quite a cluster of destructive temblors occurring over just a decade and a half.

Contrast these turbulent stretches with the decades-long periods before 1950 and from about 1965 until 2004, when the planet was relatively calm, seismically speaking, and it certainly appears that these enormous earthquakes timed so close together are connected by more than coincidence, right? And if so, shouldn’t we be expecting more major quakes in the near future as one popular author suggested following the earthquake off the coast of Japan last spring?