Offshore Wind Power Gaining Speed
Ideas about offshore windmills in the Atlantic Ocean have been blowing around for years. But now, detailed coastal wind projects are being planned as our nation gets serious about Atlantic offshore wind power. Maryland and Virginia are both investigating ways to start a wind industry; a bill under consideration in the Maryland legislature would require power companies to buy electricity from offshore wind suppliers.
Up to six gigawatts-worth of offshore wind projects have been proposed along the Atlantic Coast, according to a 2010 National Wildlife Federation report. These projects — now moving through a long permitting process — would supply enough power to equal about five coal-fired power plants and enough power to supply about 1.5 million U.S. homes annually.
The area 12 miles out from Ocean City, Md., has the potential to be among the most productive areas for harnessing wind power in the United States, according to Environment Maryland, and a study by the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-free Power Integration indicates that Maryland’s offshore wind resource is large enough to supply the state with 67 percent of its electric needs.
Building wind farms offshore makes sense for practical reasons. First, ocean winds blow harder and more steadily than inland wind. Second, land doesn’t need to be cleared to make way for construction equipment, and habitats need not be leveled to make way for the giant turbines. Offshore, wind turbines create little disturbance for people — there’s no noise disrupting daily life, unlike turbines situated on land. Wind farms in the coastal ocean can also be located closer to major cities, unlike farms in the Midwest that send power to Mid-Atlantic states through long, interstate transmission cables.
To get gears turning, large-scale wind projects — which are expensive to install and maintain — need support from government and private investors. The U.S. Department of Energy pledged up to $50.5 million in funding for offshore wind energy development projects, and last autumn Google, Inc. announced its decision to invest tens of millions in a transmission network project that will carry enough offshore wind power to supply nearly 2 million homes in Virginia, New York and New Jersey.
One environmental problem with offshore wind power is the potential for collisions with seabirds. The placement of wind farms is critical; developers must work with conservationists to find windy sites that aren’t critical for migrating seabirds. The American Bird Conservancy says it will support wind farms that are sited away from sensitive bird areas; maps with detailed data on wildlife are being developed by conservation groups for use by the wind industry.
A second environmental problem that we’re still learning about is how wind farm-related noise will affect marine mammals. Few studies have been done, and it hasn’t been determined whether the noise created by driving piles and operating windmills will interfere with marine life.
Of course, as we begin to plan and build, we should continue to research, test and learn from projects. The timing for wind power is right, and it’s time to take a giant step toward renewable energy — and our future.
Special To The Dispatch
(Madren writes about environmental issues, Chesapeake life and sustainable living. She lives in Olney, Maryland. Article was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.)