Offshore Wind Power: Is It Worth the Trade-Offs?

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Ingo Wagner / Reuters

The offshore energy park Alpha Ventus in the North Sea, about 45 km north of the German island of Borkum

Capping nearly a decade of legal disputes, regulatory review and p.r. battles, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has given the go-ahead to what will be the U.S.'s first offshore wind farm, off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The project, called Cape Wind, will supply an average of 183 megawatts — or up to three-quarters of the electricity needs for Cape Cod and the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket — without producing carbon or any other pollutant. More important, the approval of Cape Wind could pave the way for other offshore wind farms across the country, opening up a new frontier for renewable energy in the U.S. This is "the shot heard round the world for American clean energy," said Ian Bowles, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, at a press conference in Boston on Wednesday.

Cape Wind, which is undeniably impressive — with 130 wind turbines set to cover 24 sq. mi. in Nantucket Sound, about five miles from shore — has been under regulatory review for nine years. It has been opposed by a number of environmental groups and politicians, including the late Senator Edward Kennedy, whose family compound overlooks the sound. Opponents claim that the turbines will spoil Cape Cod's sea views and disrupt submerged Indian burial grounds, and that, at $1 billion for the whole project, they aren't worth the cost.

Despite Salazar's approval, those criticisms aren't going away, and the project could still face legal challenges over state and federal permits. "I am strongly opposed to the [Obama] Administration's misguided decision to move forward with Cape Wind," says Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts. "While I support the concept of wind power as an alternative source of energy, Nantucket Sound is a national treasure that should be protected from industrialization."

Salazar ordered modifications to the project to quell some of the criticisms: the number of turbines was once greater, and they were situated closer to land. The somewhat smaller, more-distant installation should reduce the visual impact. But Salazar also pushed back against critics, noting that Nantucket Sound is anything but pristine, with a long history of fishing, boating and industry activity, as well as cell-phone and broadcast towers located around the area. "This will allow us to strike an appropriate and responsible balance," he said at the press conference in Boston, where he was flanked by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Cape Wind supporter. "This will be the first of many projects up and down the Atlantic Coast."

That is a signal that the wind industry, which has been itching to develop offshore projects in the U.S., has been waiting for. The onshore portion of the industry has been growing healthily in recent years, with more than 10,000 MW of wind power added last year alone, representing 39% of all new U.S. power generation. But offshore projects have been stalled. It's not that the U.S. lacks places off the coast to put the windmills. Indeed, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that about 90,000 MW of electricity could be harnessed from offshore winds. But red tape and NIMBYism have stymied developers. All that, however, may now change. "The federal approval process still requires a lot of streamlining for offshore," says Bruce Bailey, CEO of AWS Truepower and a longtime veteran of the wind industry. "But I think this will have a very positive impact, and it's something the industry has really needed."

Of course, if every offshore project takes as long as Cape Wind did to get a green light, we won't begin to be able to tap the technology's potential in a truly meaningful way — a shame, because offshore windmills have advantages that land-based ones don't. For one thing, the breeze blows harder and steadier over the water, making wind farms placed out there more productive and reliable. What's more, while the continental U.S. does have plenty of extremely windy spots, the best ones tend to be in the middle of the country, far from population centers. That means long transmission lines, and a lot of power lost along the way. Offshore turbines, by contrast, can be built next to major cities. And because the 28 U.S. coastal states use 78% of the country's electricity, efficient transmission could make a real difference. "America needs offshore wind power," says Patrick. "This day is a long time coming."

Still, even in a friendlier regulatory environment, technical challenges remain. Building and maintaining wind turbines in the water isn't cheap; offshore wind costs about twice as much as power from onshore turbines. Salt corrosion, storms and waves can all take a heavy toll on the giant machines, and upkeep must be constant.

The real question going forward is whether Americans can be realistic about the energy and environmental challenges facing them. As the country grows, we'll need to develop more power, but the threat of climate change means that we'll have to cut carbon emissions as well. Every source of electricity has its trade-offs — fossil fuels may be cheap at the marketplace, but the recent disasters at the Upper Branch coal mine and Deepwater Horizons oil rig show their hidden cost. It's easy to be against things, and much harder to come up with good alternatives, especially when time is short and the need keeps growing. "Cape Wind is the opening of a new chapter in the future, and we are all a part of it," said Salazar. He has to be right.