Cutting the Red Tape to Deliver Offshore Wind Energy

            Every time the coalition, America’s Power, runs a TV spot proclaiming the economic benefits of clean coal technologies, it becomes easier for the average American to forget that there is an infinite source of energy flying above our heads and literally whipping us in the face: wind. Unlike coal, wind power doesn’t need special technologies to make it seem clean or safe. It is clean and abundant; according to the American Wind Energy Association, the potential for wind power in the United States is an amazing 37 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, enough to power the country 10 times over.[1]

            Unfortunately, our government’s dated regulatory policies have yet to reflect the growth potential of wind energy. While traditional fossil-fuel energy companies continue to receive generous tax breaks, a host of bureaucratic hurtles confront industry leaders erecting offshore wind turbines. In the Great Lakes region, the bottom lands on which the turbines would be built are owned by the state governments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must be commissioned to erect the structures. Before developers can move forward with the project, they must received approval from 10 different federal agencies. This regulatory model hinders innovation and growth.

            As a part of recent initiatives on the environment and renewables, the Obama administration along with five states on the Great Lakes, including New York, announced an agreement last Friday to develop a system for speeding up the regulatory review of proposed wind farms without sacrificing environmental or safety standards.[2] This is clearly a step which must be applauded, as it will not only ensure the accuracy, consistency, and efficiency of the review process, but it will encourage the development of a vast and critical resource. Administration officials estimate that the region could produce more than 700 gigawatts.

            There are currently no offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes. The New York Power Authority recently abandoned plans to have private companies place up to 200 wind turbines in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, yielding to critics’ concerns, but these concerns about wind farms ruining vistas, lowering property values, and harming wildlife are more properly applied to hydraulic fracturing operations, which are close to entering New York State. Hydraulic fracturing harms human health while offshore wind mildly impacts vacation properties, and the environmental risk of pumping chemicals underground clearly outweighs that of a wind turbine in Lake Erie. Proponents of hyrdo-fracking argue that it will create jobs, but this is not the only way to stimulate New York’s economy. The many steps necessary to construct and operate offshore wind farms can add thousands of jobs to the economy, and these will be jobs in a growing field that will make New Yorkers experts in an emerging industry. It is a shame that the administration’s regulatory focus is on mitigating the harm caused by allowing invasive drilling when it could be focused on developing an inherently clean and innovative energy source. New York State should embrace its significant wind energy resources to continue being a state that leads the nation into the future.  

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2 Responses to Cutting the Red Tape to Deliver Offshore Wind Energy

  1. Brian Shafer says:

    What are the environmental consequences of building these turbines in the lakes? How large are these turbines? On average, how much is produced by each turbine? What is the cost of each turbine, and how long does it take to build? Would we be polluting our waters during construction? Thanks for the read, great way to start my day. Keep em coming.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brian. The environmental consequences that are most concerning involve two disruptions to marine life: noise generation and artificial reefs. The vibration of the turbine support structure will inevitably produce underwater noise that could disturb animals like whales that are sensitive to low-frequency sound. Other marine life, such as dolphins or seals, are thought to initially avoid wind farms but later to seek them out as feeding grounds because of the reef effect. Fish tend to aggregate around objects placed in the sea, and it is likely that mussels, seaweed, barnacles and other aquatic life will make wind turbines their home. If you’re interested in learning more, I got this information from a white paper written by a marine biologist named Gero Vella at the University of Liverpool.

      The wind turbines for the now-abandoned project under consideration by the New York Power Authority would each have been about 450 feet high. Power generation varies by size of the turbine and location. A single 1MW turbine operating at a 45% production rate will generate about 3.9 milion kW of electricity in a year. This would be enough to meet the needs of about 500 households per year.

      The cost of a wind farm will also vary greatly depending on size, scale, and markets. A single wind turbine can cost between 1.2 and 3 million dollars, so building an entire wind farm represents a significant investment. As with all power utilities, dollars spent on wind farms are sunken costs that the utility owner must recoup slowly over time by providing power to regional markets. This can take decades, so it is understandably difficult to motivate investors to finance any utility. Wind energy faces the additional challenge of intermittence (wind doesn’t always blow), transmission issues (storing and distributing intermittent power), and low demand (areas of Western New York that would be serviced by wind energy from the Great Lakes are already powered by fossil fuel power plants). Government support and technological development are both necessary before wind energy will reach grid parity.

      Finally, I can’t imagine that building these turbines would result in any more pollution than building offshore oil rigs does. The construction project must be reviewed by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service and carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers, so there is little reason to believe that care will not be taken for the environment during construction.

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