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The U.S. is getting its first major offshore wind farm. And it’s a big deal.
The Biden administration recently gave the green light for the company, Vineyard Wind, to build 62 colossal wind turbines (over 800 feet tall) off the coast of Massachusetts, creating enough energy to power some 400,000 homes. The project is a significant leap in the nation’s ability to harness powerful winds that blow over the ocean, producing bounties of clean, renewable energy.
“This is an imperative for us,” emphasized Ben Schafer, a civil engineer and director of the Sustainable Energy Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has to start somewhere to establish reliable offshore wind in coastal areas where most Americans live and consume energy.
It’s how growth begins. “Scale only happens when you start approving these bigger projects,” Schafer said.
The wind farm, currently planned to go online in 2023, will produce some 800 megawatts of energy, though the Biden administration has ambitious plans to stoke a surge of similar projects this decade, resulting in 30 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind by 2030. That means the Vineyard Wind project achieves about 3.3 percent of this decadal goal. Still, it’s making a meaningful dent in humanity’s immense, and still growing, carbon problem.
“What matters is you’re removing a chunk of energy produced by conventional [fossil fuel] technology and replacing it with clean energy,” emphasized Yury Dvorkin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at New York University who researches energy grids.
Today, the potent greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (as well as methane) is surging in Earth’s atmosphere. CO2 levels haven’t been this high in some 3 million years, a much warmer time when sea levels were around 30 feet higher and giant camels dwelled in high Arctic regions. (Today, of course, sea levels haven’t nearly caught up with such rapidly skyrocketing CO2 levels, but the seas are gradually rising.)
The approval of this first major offshore project may trigger other green lights soon enough, like a similar wind farm off the windy Maryland coast. “It does signal relatively quick approval of the many projects in planning,” said Pierre Conner, an energy markets expert and executive director of the Tulane Energy Institute. “It also reduces the uncertainty of approval to accelerate more offshore projects.”
Both land wind farms and those in the ocean must co-exist to help create an energy system that produces carbon-free energy. Yet offshore wind certainly has unique benefits. The ocean doesn’t provide much resistance to wind as forests and topography can. “The winds are better and faster,” explained Charles Meneveau, a mechanical engineer and wind energy expert at Johns Hopkins University. Offshore wind can also ease potential “land use” issues caused by sprawling wind projects — though wind turbines can operate on farms and earn farmers money, thus not taking up “more land.” “Some studies indicate 40 times more land is required for wind power than natural gas-powered electricity generation, so there is a challenge there eased by locating offshore,” noted Tulane’s Conner.
“The winds are better and faster.”
The reality of large offshore wind farms may be a new development in the U.S., but this doesn’t mean the technology is new or in its early stages. Just the opposite. Offshore wind flourishes “across the pond” off the coasts of Scandinavia, Scotland, and the Netherlands. Engineers know how to harness the wind to produce bounties of reliable energy. The Vineyard Wind project, for example, will have massive turbines spaced a mile apart, so turbines “downstream” of others won’t receive any slowed or disrupted winds. What’s more, the turbines are huge for a reason: Larger wind turbines can harness more wind, and doubling the wind (from, say, 10 to 20 mph) results in eight times more power. “Doubling the velocity gets you eight times more power,” said Meneveau. “That’s why those turbines are getting bigger and taller.”
Sometimes, the giant turbines will experience extreme storms or hurricanes. Engineers have a plan for these relatively rare events, too. The wind turbines stop, and the blades are feathered so they don’t get torn apart. “The idea is to go from a tall flower to a narrow weed of grass,” explained Johns Hopkins Schafer. Does this make offshore wind unreliable? No. Battery storage on land is critical for storing up wind energy for future use and potential stoppages explained Schafer. In some cases, temporary power from other sources (like a natural gas powered-plant) can fire up to meet demand.
As these colossal turbines are built off the Massachusetts coast, other states and regions will likely realize this wind-powered future is here — and it brings jobs and money. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that a single 600 megawatt project (a little smaller than the 800 megawatt Vineyard Wind project) would bring in US$445 million during construction and create thousands of jobs, along with establishing some 150 permanent jobs once the project goes online.
SEE ALSO: Why wind turbines thrive in Antarctica and places way colder than Texas
Today, wind energy provides around 8.4 percent of energy in the U.S. By 2030, boosted by offshore wind projects, that number could swell.
“We are building towards a major infrastructure change,” said Meneveau. “It points to a future where many of these could exist.”