Earlier this summer while the U.S. was celebrating its independence from Britain the Prime Minister of Britain inaugurated the world’s largest offshore wind farm that can power half a million homes. The small nation of Denmark now gets a quarter of its power from mostly offshore wind and wants to double that by 2020. When will the U.S. declare its independence and freedom from Big Oil? It started in an extremely modest way in June when the first U.S. offshore wind turbine, a floating model designed for deep water deployment hooked into the U.S. power grid for a short time. The 65-foot floating wind turbine launched in Castine, Maine, is a 1-8th commercial prototype designed by the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center with support from the State and $12 million from the Department of Energy. Eventually they plan commercial arrays of turbines 20 miles offshore where the winds are strong and potential coastal conflicts few.
The Cape Wind company’s conflicts with Cape Cod residents a decade ago proved a setback for offshore wind in the U.S. but also led to the creation of the Massachusetts Ocean Advisory Commission that takes an ecosystem based approach to the use of state waters. Plans are now moving forward for wind farms off Massachusetts, Delaware and Maryland. In Maine, a Coast Guard small boat station receives about 60 kilowatts of power from a barge-like tidal power generator located on the huge tidal bore of the Bay of Fundy where tides regularly rise and fall 30 feet. On the West Coast and in Hawaii the Navy has been working on wave power systems as has a public-private partnership off Oregon though nothing at the scale of the commercial Oyster wave generator being installed off Scotland that can power 30,000 homes.
Having proved the viability of OTEC, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, at its Natural Energy Lab on the Big Island of Hawaii where the temperature difference between cold deep water and surface water is used to generate electricity, the State of Hawaii inexplicably pulled the plug on its power plant. So now, with the U.S. having proven the concept, China is moving forward with an initial 10-megawatt OTEC project off its southern coast with technical support provided by Lockheed Martin. The U.S. is not exactly leading the pod when it comes to advancing clean ocean energy. Part of its failure may have to do with the stranglehold oil and gas has on U.S. offshore energy policy (oil leasing revenues along with custom tariffs are the largest source of federal income other than taxes). Also U.S. policymakers’ infatuation with domestic fracking for natural gas has taken any serious focus away from non-carbon energy development. But another source of resistance can be attributed to what I call NOBO, Not On my Bay or Ocean citizen opposition, the maritime equivalent of NIMBY, the Not In My Backyard opponents of many onshore wind and solar projects.
The designs for wind and wave power, along with water current, tidal and OTEC hardware, are relatively simple, along the lines of drilling rigs, navigation buoys, barrier booms, power-plant intake pipes and bottom-fixed propeller arrays. Their commercial deployment should not be hugely expensive, and, if properly sited, neither would they overwhelm our already industrialized coast.
This is not to say that offshore wind, wave, tidal, current or OTEC projects might not pose a threat or do harm to existing fishing grounds, coastal views, marine wildlife, national defense training or shipping routes, even standing waves and point breaks favored by surfers. But that mostly has to do with where they are sited. That isn’t an argument against their placement but rather for greater citizen participation and ecosystem based marine planning by government and other stakeholders like now being implemented under the U.S. National Ocean Policy and by various state and regional ocean programs. At the Blue Vision Summit of ocean conservationists this past May in D.C., Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network talked about his group’s campaign that helped Maryland launch an initiative to begin generating well-planned and publicly supported offshore wind power. Ocean conservationists ought to be in the lead to make sure that clean carbon-free sea power systems become viable so that we can make the much needed transition from oil and gas to wind and waves. After all, while petroleum can both foul our coastlines and overheat our blue marble planet, no beach was ever destroyed by a wind spill. Done right blue could be the new green.