The U.S. has been slow to develop its offshore wind. Most of the action has been in Northern Europe, particularly in Denmark (which wants 50% of its electricity from wind by 2020), and the U.K. Yet, the American opportunity is vast. The Department of Energy estimates the ocean could deliver as much as 4,000 gigawatts—or four times our entire current generating capacity.
Not of all of this treasure has gone unused for silly reasons like the complaints of people wanting to preserve views, or political wrangling. Much of the Atlantic coastline is too deep for conventional wind turbines. So something else is needed before the energy can be exploited.
That something, according to the DeepCwind consortium launching off the Maine coast, is a floating turbine: a unit that’s tethered to the ocean-floor, not fixed with mono-piles, as most offshore turbines are today. Led by the University of Maine, the DOE-backed project is deploying a prototype 65-foot-tall turbine this summer. Then, if all goes well, it will install the real thing—a machine with a 423-foot diameter rotor—in 2016. By 2020, the hope is to create a wind farm with 80 turbines, about 20 miles offshore.
The key issues for the trial stage are cost and reliability. As relatively untried equipment, floating turbines are currently more expensive than conventional systems. And some other projects, in Europe, have run aground.
More than that, before the U.S. fully develops offshore, the industry will need to upgrade ports, tackle planning issues, and ensure transmission connectivity (not easy 20 miles from the nearest substation).
Still, Maine’s floating turbine—a world-first in its concrete-composite design—shows we’re finally taking offshore wind seriously.