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Oceana Magazine Spring 2010: Wind Rises

The global offshore wind industry has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and the United States is working quickly to catch up.

By Suzannah Evans

The towering white turbines of Denmark’s wind farms formed a striking backdrop for last year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, and acted as a symbol for Europe’s global dominance in the race to establish wind as a viable source of clean energy.

But Europe wasn’t the original pioneer of wind energy – the United States was. In the wake of the fuel crisis of the early 1970s, California established the world’s first wind farms. By 1986, California represented nearly 90 percent of global wind power installations. 

The United States’ dominance would prove to be short-lived. In the ensuing years, Europe raced to build wind farms, but the industry was quickly met with a problem of space: Densely-developed Europe just didn’t have room for turbines large enough to generate the amounts of power needed to displace dirty fossil fuels.

And so, starting in 1991 in Denmark, Europe began building wind farms in the ocean. Now Europe is home to 830 offshore wind turbines installed in 39 farms. More than 100 gigawatts of new offshore wind projects are already in the works – the equivalent of 100 nuclear power plants. According to the European Wind Energy Association, these projects could provide Europe with 10 percent of its energy and save 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year.

The U.S. has enormous potential for clean wind energy production. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), large swaths of the Midwest are windy enough to qualify as “good” locations for wind turbines. But the United States’ largest population centers are located on the coasts, and transmitting wind power long distances to urban centers is expensive and technologically complex. Fortunately, the American coasts provide an even richer wind resource: the ocean. The DOE has declared thousands of miles of coastline to be “excellent,” “outstanding” or “superb” sources of wind.

Despite this wealth of renewable energy, the U.S. has yet to install a single offshore wind turbine – although dozens of proposals are in the works. In April, the U.S. made a huge leap forward with the federal approval of Cape Wind, an installation proposed off the coast of Nantucket. This 130-turbine farm located five miles offshore faced nearly a decade of struggle to become a reality. The Massachusetts state and local governments as well as the public supported the project, but questions about the impacts of the development stalled Cape Wind for years.

“The approval of Cape Wind is a signal that the U.S. is finally getting serious about offshore wind,” said Jackie Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana’s climate and energy campaign.

Savitz’s team studied the impacts of offshore wind development in Europe, which has been underway for nearly two decades. The most well-publicized environmental concern about wind turbines is their effect on bird populations. But scientists discovered that most birds flocks avoided wind turbines once they were constructed, and that for every 10,000 birds killed by human activity, less than one death was caused by wind turbines.

Meanwhile, a study published in Nature in 2004 estimated that 19 to 45 percent of global species will go extinct under a mid-range estimate of climate warming, underscoring the importance of shifting towards carbon-free clean energy.

“Offshore wind has the potential to be a big part of the solution to the greatest environmental challenge we face – climate change,” Savitz said. “While we are concerned about sea birds and other marine life, we think if it’s done right, the impacts of offshore wind can be small compared to the alternative.”

Electricity generation is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., producing about 40 percent of the 6,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted each year. The energy-hungry U.S. is already the largest consumer of electricity in the world, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the country’s demand for electricity will grow 39 percent by 2030.

Carbon dioxide emissions have already led to increasingly acidic waters in our oceans, which is projected to lead to mass extinctions of corals and major ecological disruptions. Melting sea ice, species shifts and fishery impacts are just some examples of the problems climate change is predicted to cause in the oceans.

“Fossil fuels, the traditional source of energy, are dirty and finite, but wind is plentiful and clean,” Savitz said. “Using wind, a free fuel, instead of oil, natural gas and coal eliminates carbon emissions and will ultimately lower our energy bills.”

Wind energy faces many challenges – including its natural competitors in the fossil fuel industries.

“What many people don’t realize is that expanding offshore drilling compromises our ability to develop offshore wind,” Savitz said. “The two will compete for investments, materials, installation ships and marine expertise which will raise the costs of offshore wind farms and slow their progress. We need to prioritize clean energy and stop the expansion of offshore drilling so that we can get the best bang for our buck.”

The footprint of wind energy pales next to the coal industry, which disturbs an area the size of Rhode Island every year. And while wind farms reap energy from the same space, the coal industry must continually move on to new sources, destroying additional habitat with every new project. About half of Americans already live in a place with dangerous levels of smog, and coal-based electric plants are the largest source of mercury pollution in the country.

The good news is that the U.S. has reestablished itself as a burgeoning force in the wind industry after years of trailing Europe. In 2009, the onshore wind industry added nearly 10,000 megawatts of capacity in the U.S., enough to power 2.4 million homes or generate as much electricity as three large nuclear power plants, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The wind industry has the capacity to power an additional million homes every five months.

“Using wind instead of fossil fuels makes sense on every level,” said Savitz. “We’re hard at work to ensure that the United States expands its wind resources offshore, rather than expanding offshore drilling into previously protected ocean areas. This will help to ensure a clean energy future.”

THE BENEFITS OF WIND

The U.S. Department of Energy expects many benefits if we source 20 percent of our energy from wind by 2030 – a feasible goal know as “The 20 Percent Scenario.” The benefits include:

  • Reducing annual electric sector carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. by 825 million metric tons.
  • Saving 4 trillion gallons of fresh water used by electricity plants.
  • Creating artificial reef-like habitats for fish and other sea creatures under wind turbine platforms.
  • Diversifying and stabilizing national energy supplies, helping ease our dependence on polluting foreign fuels.

Oceana’s campaign

Oceana’s climate and energy campaign is working to help expand offshore wind operations in Europe, and help the U.S.’s industry get off the ground. Oceana’s in-depth reports on wind energy will help answer many of the questions legislators and the public have about wind farms. For more information about the campaign, and to see video of Oceana’s trip to an offshore wind farm in Denmark during the U.N. Climate Change Conference, visit www.oceana.org.