Student blog: Five things to know about offshore wind energy in the U.S.

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Monday, Dec 02, 2019 - 2:12 pm
Offshore wind and the U.S., 5 things to know.

Earlier this month, offshore wind energy experts met in Cary, North Carolina to discuss the industry’s development in the state. Attendees at the conference—"Offshore Wind: Spotlight on North Carolina"— included government regulators, offshore developers, steel manufacturers, oil platform contractors, and more. All shared an interest in advancing the offshore wind energy industry, which is expected to see significant growth in the Southeast. 

Students from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Fuqua School of Business also attended. Here are a few interesting takeaways from the conference about offshore wind energy in the US:

1. The turbines are probably bigger than you think. Over the last several decades, both onshore and offshore turbines have become larger to capitalize on increases in efficiency that come with scale. 

If you’ve ever driven past a wind farm, you understand the size of the structures, but offshore turbines dwarf even the largest land turbines. For example, North Carolina’s largest land-based wind installation (also its only wind installation), the Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East, uses 2MW turbines with a blade hub height of 92 meters. By comparison, the latest evolution in the offshore size race is GE’s new 12MW Haliade-X, with a hub height of 260 meters and blades the length of football fields. 

Larger turbines promise increased power production from areas with slower wind speeds and enable profitable expansions of the industry into regions with less wind resources (such as the Southeast). 

2. Siting is half the battle. Offshore wind lease auctions are conducted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which essentially acts as the landlord for developers’ leases located in federal waters. BOEM also determines which sites will be made available for auction. 

The siting process is complex and begins with studies on marine life and birds to remove biologically critical areas from consideration. Next, BOEM consults with the Department of Defense and Coast Guard to ensure projects don’t impact military or industrial operations. The Bureau cross-references these recommendations with AIS vessel data to ensure that wind farms won’t disturb commercial shipping patterns. Finally, BOEM works with fisheries and local stakeholders, eventually handing off stakeholder relations to the developer once a lease has been granted. 

Even after the lease has been granted, offshore developers must work with local stakeholders throughout the life of the projects to ensure that adverse effects of the farms are mitigated.

3. Offshore wind is coming to the southeast. While the only operational offshore wind farm in the U.S. is the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island, several developers have acquired leases off the coasts of Massachusetts and New York. These proposed farms in the northeast are well along the path to generating power, but other parts of the country have lagged in offshore development. However, this trend is slated to change as BOEM studies new lease areas in the Carolinas. 

One major lease has already been awarded to the renewable developer Avangrid, which is building out the project under the name Kitty Hawk Wind. The project is expected to produce the first offshore power to the state in the mid-2020s. 

Though wind resources are not as plentiful in the Southeast as they are in New England, the generation potential is significant enough to attract major offshore developers who see the region as the industry’s next expansion area in the U.S.

4. Government has a role to play. At the conference’s start, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper spoke about the importance of offshore wind for the state’s economic development. His remarks foreshadowed one of the major themes of the event: government support is vital to the success of offshore wind. 

Take the Northeastern U.S. for example. New York State has committed to developing 9GW of offshore wind by 2035. Massachusetts is requiring 1.6 GW of offshore generation by 2027 and has developed port infrastructure and a turbine testing facility to help the industry move forward. 

When a state compels its utilities to purchase offshore power, it creates market certainty that is attractive to developers, and offshore giants such as Equinor and Orsted are eager to move into regions where they can be sure to have a buyer for their power. While Gov. Cooper spoke in support of the industry, North Carolina has not made official commitments to support offshore wind or to compel state utilities to enter into power purchase agreements with offshore power suppliers. 

5. Infrastructure investments are a must in North Carolina. 

The densely populated coastal areas of the Eastern Seaboard often struggle to coexist with renewable power generation; after all, it’s difficult to site wind and solar farms in expensive and already developed regions.  Adopting land-intensive renewable power in the Northeast calls for new transmission infrastructure linked with generation facilities in Canada, Maine, or farther inland in the US. Offshore wind offers an apparent solution to this issue, with offshore wind resources located near major coastal cities in the Northeast.

In North Carolina, however, the situation is flipped. Population centers, and therefore energy consumption, is concentrated inland around Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh. Generation currently outpaces consumption in eastern parts of the state, so transmission delivers power from east to the west. At some point, adding further generation to the state’s coast would require transmission upgrades to send power inland, an issue that is not encountered in the north. 

In addition, each offshore project needs to find an interconnection point on the mainland grid, and these are limited in North Carolina. While the current proposed projects won’t exceed the amount of connections that are currently possible, future development will inevitably require major upgrades to power infrastructure if offshore resources are to be fully utilized. 

Will Foster is a graduate student assistant at the Duke University Energy Initiative. He is studying energy systems through a dual master’s degrees in environmental management and business administration at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Fuqua School of Business.

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Will Foster