USA to Concentrate More on Offshore Wind Than Offshore Oil

Offshore windmills used to create energy are unfamiliar territory to most in south Louisiana. But some say the technology, which is undergoing a big push for development by the Obama administration, could be a new growth area for shipbuilding and fabrication companies. Trade associations, including the Shipbuilders Council of America, say clusters of wind turbines called “farms” will need offshore platform structures and boats to service them. And at least one local company, Gulf Island Fabrication of Houma, has been following the projects for three years or so and has already placed bids on equipment.

“Basically we would build a fixed platform in the shallow water … in up to about 200 feet,” CEO Kerry Chauvin said. “This would be a similar type structure to what we’ve done in the Gulf of Mexico (for oil platforms).”

It’s not something that will happen overnight, or even in the next year. But given a slow market for deepwater projects, it could be a new growth market. “We sure hope so,” Chauvin said.

The idea of offshore wind power isn’t new: Europe has been building the projects since the early 1990s and has more than 800 turbines that provide energy to nine countries. No such developments currently exist in the United States.

The project that has made the most progress so far is Cape Wind, a $2.5 billion project that would place 130 wind turbines off coastal Massachusetts. It was finally approved in April after years of citizen opposition and bureaucratic delays, which had to a large extent deterred investment in other projects. But roughly 20 other projects are in the permitting pipeline, including those in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes.

The potential is wide: According to a government study published in September by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, if all the potential offshore wind power in U.S. waters were harnessed, it could produce quadruple the country’s present electric demand.

The Department of the Interior late last month rolled out a program late last month that would simplify regulations to start leasing for wind projects off the Atlantic coast as early as next year.

“Our ‘Smart from the Start’ initiative for Atlantic wind will allow us to identify priority wind-energy areas for potential development, improve our coordination with local, state and federal partners, and accelerate the leasing process,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in the department’s announcement of the project. “If we are wise with our planning, we can help build a robust and environmentally responsible offshore renewable energy program that creates jobs here at home.” Habib Dagher is a professor of structural engineering at the University of Maine, part of a team that has been working to develop the technology for “deepwater” offshore wind farms located more than 20 miles off the coast.

The political fate of the program is still uncertain, but he still sees a “heightened level of interest with the Obama administration to move the wind programs forward,” he said.

Offshore wind power presents a number of advantages, Dagher said. First, in many locations the wind blows more strongly offshore than inland, and areas with high potential for wind power generation are close to large coastal cities like Boston and New York City.

“Offshore wind is much steadier and stronger than inland wind,” Dagher said. “You can make the turbines quite a bit bigger.”

Locating the turbines offshore also removes the noise and eyesore elements that have frustrated communities that have found the farms disruptive. If placed far enough offshore, they’re also out of sight.

In addition, wind power lacks the pollution generated by oil and gas, and it’s a renewable resource that won’t run out.

But the proposals still face many challenges. For one, transmission lines would need to be established to carry the electricity to shore. That’s an effort that got a major boost in October when Google agreed to invest $5 billion to build a 350-mile transmission “backbone” that would supply up to 1.9 million households from New Jersey to Virginia.

“The AWC backbone will be built around offshore power hubs that will collect the power from multiple offshore wind farms and deliver it efficiently via sub-sea cables to the strongest, highest capacity parts of the land-based transmission system,” said Google’s announcement. “This system will act as a superhighway for clean energy.”

The technology is still expensive, and costs more to install and produce than conventional energy.

But much of the market for engineering and construction of the turbines, tools, ships and other products surrounding the technology is still wide open, says Sean O’Neill, founder of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition. The OREC group is made up of more than 40 companies and other groups with an interest in exploring the technology, including defense contractor Lockheed Martin and Chevron Technology Ventures.

“You’re starting to see shipbuilders and other offshore contractors getting much more excited about this field, and looking to diversify what they’re doing,” O’Neill said. “There are over 100 different technologies being focused on worldwide. For each of those technologies the answer is going to be different.”

For instance, Dagher said his university is working with a consortium of 35 companies, including oil-and-gas firms, to develop the technology to produce floating platforms for wind turbines. They are similar to the floating deepwater rigs used to drill for oil, except much smaller. The oil rigs can cost up to $1 billion each, but the floating turbines are closer to $15 million, he said.

“There are a lot of job-creation opportunities for the oil-and-gas business,” he said. “The more business opportunities you have, the better off we all are.”

He sees offshore wind and oil-and-gas not in opposition, but a trend of overall innovation within energy production, comparing it to the transition between horse-drawn carts to automobiles.

“We’re going to need all the above (energy sources) as we move forward,” Dagher said. “There will be a time when oil will not be abundant anymore. There will be a time where there’s going to be a transformation of energy. The sooner we start, the better off we’re going to be.”

The idea of oil-and-gas companies expanding into offshore wind has its skeptics from both sides. Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said he knew of no Louisiana oil-related companies other than Gulf Island that were getting involved with the market as of yet.

“I don’t discourage wind,” he said. But “that’s not going to run the engines of this country.”

By Kathrine Schmidt (dailycomet)


Source: dailycomet, December 20, 2010