Conventional wisdom holds that wind power is limited by intermittency—the problem of what to do when the wind stops blowing. Getting power from where it’s windiest to where it’s needed is an additional difficulty. Wind farms have also faced opposition due to noise, shadow flicker and aesthetic considerations. Yet a new plan to create a transmission backbone off the Atlantic coast “shows that all of these obstacles can be overcome,” says Jackie Savitz, senior scientist for the nonprofit group Oceana.
The latest plan for harnessing offshore wind power represents “a serious, functioning clean-energy infrastructure the likes of which the country’s never had,” says Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. The backbone has the potential to surpass any rumored wind limitations and is promising enough to have secured substantial funding from Google. And this transmission backbone could eventually be part of something much larger—a Department of Energy study calls for 54 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, enough to power over 30 million homes.
The Atlantic transmission line should create capacity for some two million homes. The first phase will reach from Delaware through the southern New Jersey coast, phase B will move north, and phase C will be off Virginia (with flexibility for additional phases). When completed, the project will likely cost $5 billion, and will carry power from Virginia to New York City.
The backbone will “link multiple wind farms along a regional system,” explains Markian Melnyk, president of Atlantic Wind Connection, which is coordinating the construction. With wind farms in multiple locations on a single system, “you’ve shrunken the aggregate variability,” he adds. “So that means you need less conventional back-up power. That means wind energy is more valuable, because it’s more reliable.”
For example, if Melnyk’s mother in Queens, New York, needs energy and the weather is mild near her, she’ll get wind power from where it’s strong—say off the Virginia coast. The Mid-Atlantic Bight (a coastal region running from Massachusetts to North Carolina), where the backbone is located, is wind rich, and a network of wind farms will be able to harness and transmit wind power from various weather systems as they move through the region.
While minimizing environmental impact, the new transmission line will also provide a desperately needed addition to our aging energy infrastructure. “At the end of the day,” says Melnyk, utilities are looking for “a whole new robust path for power to move through the region.” The backbone will zip power to where it is needed, making it a “real regional application of smart grid technology,” he says, controlled in real time with fiber optics and a central computer.
And worries about threats to birds and bats that surround onshore wind power are greatly reduced offshore, particularly for those wind farms located more than 10 miles off the coast. Savitz says that her organization has looked at how offshore wind farms might impact “everything from birds to worms,” and said any potential harms are easily mitigated. Besides, she points out, any impact will be “miniscule in comparison to our continued use of fossil fuels.” Unlike an offshore oil rig, an offshore wind farm can’t spill millions of barrels of crude oil into the nation’s waters the way BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig did last spring.
Atlantic Wind Connection hopes to get the plan in operation by 2016. Of course the transmission line needs wind farms to be useful. Cape Wind off of Massachusetts will be the first offshore wind farm on board having secured approval after a 10-year struggle for permitting due to local opposition and federal bureaucracy. To kick-start further progress, the Obama administration launched the “Smart from the Start” initiative in November 2010 to identify wind priority areas and speed up permitting, with the goal of allowing projects to be approved in late 2011 and 2012. Other wind farms are being planned in Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and elsewhere along the east coast.
Whether, and how soon, such plans come to fruition depends largely on the shifting political climate. Maryland’s governor, Martin O’Malley, introduced an offshore wind bill this year in synchronicity with the transmission grid. Environmental groups led a strong effort to pass the bill, with support from unions such as the steelworkers (wind turbines are 90% steel) and other organizations. Tidwell, who helped coordinate the effort, explains that “everything happened as planned except the bill passing.” While it died in committee, such setbacks are normal for a new bill, and it will be reintroduced next year. “Investors and manufacturers all assume serious offshore wind is coming,” says Tidwell, describing the defeat as “a temporary pause, not a big setback.”
If efforts in Maryland, backed by a strong coalition, face delay, finding approval for wind farms elsewhere is apt to be even more challenging. The move toward a fully equipped transmission backbone will likely slow, speed up and shift with the vicissitudes of…well, the wind. Yet, if initial projects are successful, they should accelerate the progress of future projects.
The 7,000 megawatts planned is only the beginning, as the transmission line could potentially be extended into deeper waters as well as further along the coast. If that happens, the potential for electrical generation is huge. An Oceana report estimates that offshore wind could someday supply nearly half the electricity on the east coast. The Atlantic backbone “may be the first of a new type of grid,” explains Savitz, one that could be widely imitated. Adds Tidwell: “We need to begin to transform how we think about energy.” The transmission line is a huge breakthrough in the move toward a smart, networked, interlinked grid that quickly dispatches renewable energy across vast areas to where it’s needed.
ETHAN GOFFMAN is an environmental writer in the Washington, D.C. region and the associate editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy.