On Thursday, the Biden administration announced the latest in its renewable energy efforts, this time focused on a technology that hasn’t quite arrived yet: floating offshore wind turbines. Compared to turbines anchored directly to the seabed, floating versions would cost around 50% more, placing large areas of ocean beyond the reach of economic energy development. The program announced today will create a “gale” that aims to reduce costs by more than 70% over the next decade and position the United States as an industry leader in this industry.
Will it float?
While offshore wind is booming in Europe and China (and on the verge of a late take-off in the US), existing equipment is being built directly from the seabed, requiring sitting in shallow waters. This works well for the US East Coast, where a wide continental shelf can support huge wind farms, many of which are in the permitting and planning phase. Most of these projects involve partnering with European companies, as the long delay in the US in adopting offshore wind has ceded the industry to pioneering countries in this field.
Based on a recently released map of offshore wind potential in the United States, many areas with good potential are too deep to be tapped by wind turbines anchored to the ocean floor. This includes almost the entire West Coast, Hawaii and the Great Lakes. Even along the East Coast, floating turbines could dramatically expand the areas open to development.
Collectively, the Department of Energy estimates there is a potential of more than four terawatts of wind power between stationary and floating turbines. At typical offshore wind generation levels, this is enough to cover all of the United States’ annual electricity consumption in about three months.
The problem is the costs. Stationary onshore wind turbines have only recently become competitive with coal-fired generation in Europe, and they still need to come down a bit before competing with natural gas. Adding the 50% expense penalty for floating wind raises costs above those of nuclear power. The new “wind shot” program aims to solve this problem and simultaneously increase the capacity to install floating turbines while making them competitive with natural gas. If successful, it could position US companies as leaders in floating wind power.
While there may be issues with the overuse of the word “moonshot” in relation to government programs, the term wind shot is based on an earlier, successful DOE program called “SunShot.” Launched a decade ago, SunShot had similar goals of reducing photovoltaic energy costs and achieved them several years ahead of schedule. This success has helped spawn several related renewable energy programs.
SunShot’s key recognition is that only a fraction of the challenges of solar energy came down to the cost of the panels. The cost of permits and supporting hardware like inverters, as well as the ability to handle a large amount of intermittent power on the grid, have all created barriers that have limited the economic potential of solar power. Similarly, problems with drifting wind have little to do with the cost of turbines (although reducing them wouldn’t hurt). Instead, the effort is focused on supporting hardware.
For the Offshore Wind Shot, this will include optimizing the design of the floating platforms and the tethers that connect them to the ocean floor and the design of the transmission networks that will deliver the resulting energy to shore. The DOE will also ensure that the supply chain can be put in place to power a domestic manufacturing industry and will do everything possible to develop this industry to achieve the goal of having 15 gigawatts of floating offshore wind capacity d 2035.
Specifically, the DOE will fund competitions for the design of floating platforms, develop software to help design offshore farms and integrate them into the grid, and fund port and grid analysis along the West Coast. to determine how to support an offshore wind industry there. Also, an existing research program called ATLANTIS (which stands for, and I wish it weren’t true, “Aerodynamic Turbines, Lighter and Afloat, with Nautical Technologies and Integrated Servo-control”) will focus on testing the plot of some of the designs that came out of an earlier stage of the program.
In addition to the obvious benefits of a leadership position in an industry that is expected to grow dramatically over the next few decades, the focus on floating offshore wind offers the opportunity to reallocate some of the industry and workers offshore fossil fuel extraction. Having a clear path to continued relevance can reduce resistance to some of the changes we will inevitably have to make.