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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Transmission: Why East Coast Offshore Renewable Energy Will Provide More Renewable Energy Than Onshore Wind Imported from the Midwest

It`s no secret that the costs of transmission associated with offshore renewable energy generation are greater than the costs associated with onshore renewable energy generation. You don`t need an expert to explain why laying cable along the ocean floor might be more expensive than traditional above-ground power lines. Thus, it is not surprising that proponents of midwest onshore wind farms have latched onto this simple economic argument to support a plan wherein east coast electricity would be imported across thousands of miles from midwest wind farms in places like the Dakotas.

However, the hidden costs of importing midwestern wind are more than just financial. Importing wind energy from the midwest would require construction of thousands of miles of cross-country transmission lines and associated relay stations. The new transmission lines would potentially pass through a number of states such as Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, Indiana and Pennsylvania that host some of the most productive coal mines and some of the dirtiest coal fired power plants in the nation; and, there is no legal basis by which anyone could prevent those coal fired power plants from tapping into the new electricity superhighway. In short, a cross country transmission line would provide greater opportunity for the distribution of dirty electricity, thus defeating the entire purpose of importing clean, wind energy all that way.

So what`s the alternative? The alternative is to build offshore renewable energy off of the Atlantic Seaboard.

Those who support importing midwestern wind energy may argue that while traditional power plants ability to tap into transcontinental transmission lines may tarnish some of the environmental benefit, there are also advantages to be had-- most especially with regard to the intermittency issue.

As I have mentioned here before, one of the big concerns with all true renewable energy resources is intermittency-- i.e., the wind doesn`t blow all the time and the sun only shines for abut half of any given 24 hour period. However, if traditional power plants could take over at night and when the wind is calm, wouldn`t that split the baby and solve the problem? Well, yeah, but that means we still have to keep those stinky old power plants online, right?

There may be a better solution.

A recent study, published on April 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and spearheaded by marine-policy expert Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware in Newark, proposes a 1,550-mile-long network of offshore wind stations that could provide power from Massachusetts to North Carolina with minimal threat of outages.

Kempton's study directly addresses the intermittency problem by addressing the issue from a meteorological standpoint. Basically, the study shows that at any given time, the wind is gusting strongly enough to provide a significant amount of energy somewhere, but probably not everywhere, along the eastern seaboard of the United States. To combat intermittency, we therefore need to build a series of wind farms strategically along the coastline from Maine to North Carolina, and connect them through a single network.

Kempton's study used data from 11 meteorological stations located off of the eastern seaboard-- from Maine to Florida-- with data tracked over five years. The study also employed a simulated underwater transmission cable to predict the effect of interconnecting power theoretically derived from the 11 stations. Although each site's data showed a predictably erratic capacity for electricity production, the energy production of all of the sites in aggregate did not dramatically fluctuate.

Moreover, there are no fossil fuel burning power plants between eastern coastal waters and land. So, there you have it-- a solution to intermittency that does not require default reliance on traditional power plants.

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