A huge offshore wind energy project took a leap forward today with the announcement that Google and the investment firm Good Energies are backing the mammoth underwater transmission lines that would carry clean electricity up and down the East Coast. The $5 billion dollar project would allow for wind farms to spring up all along the mid-Atlantic continental shelf.
Google and Good Energies will both be 37.5 percent equity partners in the clean energy infrastructure project; the Japanese industrial, energy, and investment firm Marubeni will take a 15 percent share. The project, proposed by a Maryland-based company called Trans-Elect, would set up a 350-mile long energy-carrying backbone from Virginia to northern New Jersey, first allowing the transfer of the south’s cheap electricity to the northern states, and later providing critical infrastructure for future offshore wind projects.
The AWC backbone is critical to more rapidly scaling up offshore wind because without it, offshore wind developers would be forced to build individual radial transmission lines from each offshore wind project to the shore, requiring additional time consuming permitting and environmental studies and making balancing the grid more difficult. [Official Google Blog].
The Obama administration reaffirmed its commitment to clean energy sources today by giving the green light to the controversial Cape Wind project, clearing the way for 130 wind turbines to be built off the coast of Cape Cod. The wind farm will be built in Nantucket Sound, and aims to harness the steady breezes blowing along the East coast to produce clean, albeit expensive energy.
The project had been delayed for almost a year due to opposition from local Native American tribes. Two Wampanoag tribes said the turbines, which will stand more than 400 feet above the ocean surface, would disturb spiritual sun greetings and possibly ancestral artifacts and burial grounds on the seabed, which was once exposed land before the sea level rose thousands of years ago [Boston Globe]. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who approved the project, assured the tribes that he had ordered modifications to lessen the turbines’ impact. He also said that the approval would require Cape Wind to conduct additional marine archaeological surveys and take other steps to reduce the project’s visual impact [Boston Globe]. If not held back by any other legal hurdles, construction could begin later this year.
When it comes to generating clean energy, the strong offshore winds that blow in from the ocean are a great source. But while these sea breezes are often stronger than land winds, they’re not consistent; instead their force tends to ebb and flow like the tides. Wind turbines that use offshore winds to produce energy can therefore have a tough time maintaining a steady supply of power, but now scientists from the University of Delaware have proposed a novel idea on how to keep the power supply steady.
In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Willet Kempton and his team suggest that by connecting offshore wind farms in a long network running along the entire Eastern Seaboard, power fluctuations could be cut down, as electricity from interconnected farms would be easier to manage and more valuable than from wind at a single location [BusinessWeek]. The researchers suggest that by creating a 1,550-mile-long network of wind turbines, the network could provide power from Massachusetts to North Carolina.
Besides the challenges of integrating variable wind power into an electrical grid built with fossil fuel plants in mind, wind farms also must clear the hurdle of showing that their turbines don’t pose a danger to wildlife. The latter issue has now thrown a wrench into the construction of a $300 million West Virginia wind farm, after a judge ruled it would threaten endangered bats.
U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus ruled that Chicago-based Invenergy can complete 40 windmills it has begun to install on an Appalachian ridge in Greenbrier County. But he said the company cannot move forward on the $300 million project — slated to have 122 turbines along a 23-mile stretch — without a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Washington Post].
Wind power may prove to be a promising source of clean energy, but it can also be deadly to bats. Not only can the animals be sliced by the blades of wind turbines, but the sudden drop in air pressure around the turbines can also cause bats’ lungs to explode. An electromagnetic field emitted near the turbines, however, may help bats steer clear of them, according to a new study published in the Public Library of Science One.
Bat casualties near wind turbines have proven to be significant: In 2004, over the course of six weeks, roughly 1,764 and 2,900 bats were killed at two wind farms in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, respectively [LiveScience]. If wind power continues to become increasingly prevalent, so too might the turbines become a growing threat to bat populations. “Given the growing number of wind turbines worldwide, this is going to be an increasing problem, no question about that,” said [co-author] Paul Racey [LiveScience].
What a difference a year makes. In July 2008, Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens offered up the “Pickens Plan” to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil by producing more electricity from huge wind farms, and running vehicles on natural gas instead of gasoline. To kick-start the transformation, Pickens announced that he would construct the biggest wind farm ever in Texas. Pickens announced that his company, Mesa Power LP, would order 687 wind turbines, or 1,000 megawatts of capacity, from GE for about $2 billion. By 2014, he expected to expand the Panhandle wind farm to 4,000 megawatts. That’s a massive amount of wind power. One nuclear power reactor is typically about 1,000 megawatts of capacity. Most wind farms offer only a few hundred megawatts [Dallas Morning News].
Now, one year later, Pickens has declared that he’s canceling the enormous Texas wind farm for the foreseeable future, and is scrambling to figure out where to place the 687 wind turbines that he already ordered. (He may end up establishing five or six small wind farms in the Midwest, Pickens suggested.) The project was largely done in by major problems with electricity transmission. Wind farms and other forms of clean energy are usually located in remote locations and require huge new transmission lines to carry the electricity to cities. Mr. Pickens initially hoped to finance the construction of his own transmission lines but was unable to secure funding [The Wall Street Journal].
When Chicago’s Sears Tower was completed in 1973 the 110-story building was the tallest in the world, and it offered a bold example of the human potential to build towards the clouds. Now, although the tower lost the title of tallest building to other skyscrapers in the 1990s, the tower hopes to dazzle the world anew with a fresh vision of urban architecture: The building will soon receive a $350 million environmental retrofit, with wind turbines, solar panels, and gardens all added to the building’s staggered rooftops.
The 5-year project would reduce the tower’s electricity use by 80 percent and save 24 million gallons of water a year, building owners and architects said…. “Our plans are very ambitious,” said John Huston of American Landmark Properties, who represents the building ownership. “Our plans to modernize and transform this icon will re-establish Sears Tower as a leader, a pioneer” [AP].
Sleek, streamlined wind turbines have become the icons of the green movement, but for all the growth in wind power — it accounted for 42% of all new electricity generation added to the U.S. grid last year — wind still makes up less than 3% of America’s total electricity generation [Time]. Its marginal role has led many to wonder whether the technology is worth investing in, and whether wind power is capable of supplying enough electricity to meet our needs. To answer those questions, researchers analyzed wind patterns around the world and found that wind power could theoretically supply the entire world with energy, and then some.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, isn’t being presented as a realistic plan to achieve a renewable energy nirvana; it’s simply an attempt to provide a sense of what’s possible [Ars Technica]. But the researchers’ reckoning of what’s possible is quite impressive: maxing out deployment of current-generation technology could produce five times the total energy used in the world today, and 40 times the electricity [Ars Technica].
The U.S. Interior Department announced new rules today that will allow the first offshore wind turbines to go up along the Atlantic Coast, including the site near Cape Cod that the Kennedy family famously opposed. In an Earth Day speech from Iowa, President Obama announced the new rules, which will set long-awaited guidelines for offshore leases, easements and royalty payments that the Bush administration worked on for years but did not complete [Los Angeles Times]. His administration will soon be able to begin leasing tracts off U.S. shores for electricity generation projects using wind and ocean currents [Bloomberg].
The Interior Department recently estimated that offshore wind turbines could someday supply more than enough electricity to meet the nation’s current demand [Los Angeles Times], an encouraging finding for Obama, who has been delaying the Bush-planned expansion of offshore oil drilling since entering office. The new plan is attractive because offshore winds are stronger and more reliable, and because the turbines would be closer geographically to large population centers—a key advantage since transporting wind-produced energy is still an obstacle to its large-scale development.
A microbial culture could be turned into a living energy storage system, researchers say, which could cheaply stockpile power from inconsistent solar and wind installations. Proponents of these alternative energy sources are investigating many different ways to store power for the inevitable moments when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. The intriguing new idea involves “feeding” surplus power to the microorganisms instead, which combine it with carbon dioxide to create methane. That could then be stored and burned when needed. The method is sustainable too, as the carbon is taken from the atmosphere, not released from long-term storage in oil or coal [New Scientist].
The researchers have determined that a single-celled microorganism, a type of archaea, uses electricity to convert carbon dioxide and water into methane. Sustainable energy expert Tom Curtis comments that the use of microorganisms, rather than conventional catalysts, is a plus. “There are no noble metals involved, so it should be very cheap,” he says. Of the energy put into the system as electricity, 80% was eventually recovered when the methane was burned – a fairly high efficiency. “You don’t get all the energy back, but that’s a problem with any form of energy storage,” says Curtis [New Scientist].