Plans for the World’s Largest Wind Farm

11/29/2008

By ERICA GIES

 

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SAN FRANCISCO — It is not the usual green suspect. But it hopes to build a 5-gigawatt, deep-water wind farm — the largest in the world, equal to the output from five nuclear plants.

“It” is the Ocean Energy Institute, a tiny research organization founded by Matthew Simmons. An energy investment banker who specializes in oil and gas, Simmons was an energy adviser to President George W. Bush. His main partner, George Hart, is a physicist who consults for the Pentagon on the Strategic Defense Initiative, where he uses supercomputers for the mathematical modeling of complex systems. He also co-invented a laser used for eye surgery and semiconductor manufacturing.

Simmons does not believe in climate change, but he believes in peak oil. His book, “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy,” presciently published in 2005, argued that the world was at or near peak oil production, which would limit supply and drive prices skyward.

The International Energy Agency appeared to support that thesis in a report released Nov. 12, saying that, even if demand remained flat, by 2030, the world would need to find new oil production equivalent to four Saudi Arabias, merely to offset oil field decline.

Simmons predicts resource wars if the world fails to change course; and he is particularly concerned with the future of Maine, where he has a home.

“Understand how dire it is in the state of Maine,” said Habib Dagher, an engineering professor at the University of Maine who specializes in composite materials and is working to develop advanced turbines. About 80 percent of Maine residents use oil to heat their homes, and the price of heating oil tracks that of crude. The average family uses about 1,000 gallons, or 3,785 liters a year, so if prices are $4 a gallon, or $1.06 a liter, that’s about one-tenth of the average family’s annual income.

Simmons, referring to the proposed wind farm, said, “If we don’t do this, we’re going to have to evacuate most of Maine.”

The institute’s founding mission was to study different forms of ocean energy. But Hart quickly realized that the Gulf of Maine has one of the best wind resources on the planet. The U.S. Department of Energy has rated it up to a Class 6 on a scale of 7.

Gale-force winds there in winter carry as much as eight times more energy than summer breezes. That means more power could be available precisely at periods of greatest demand. “The resource matches the problem the state of Maine faces,” Dagher said.

The target generating capacity of 5 gigawatts equals the power required to replace the use of home heating oil in winter, said Simmons. But more could be generated if necessary. The Gulf of Maine has an estimated total wind power potential of 100 gigawatts.

The farm would likely be split into five sections, each about eight nautical miles, or 9.2 miles, or 14.8 kilometers, square, containing 200 turbines generating 5 megawatts each.

Because the winds are strongest several miles offshore, the turbines would be mostly out of sight of land, built on floating platforms anchored some 12 to 20 miles off the coast in waters 100 to 200 meters, or 330 feet to 660 feet, deep.

That should pose no problem. “The oil industry has been using floating platforms for 20 to 30 years,” Dagher said. Two main designs exist – the tension-leg platform and the spar buoy. The platform has horizontal “legs” attached to a buoyant central structure and secured by tensioned cables to gravity anchors – essentially heavy weights – on the ocean floor. “The tension, fighting against the buoyancy of the platform on top, keeps it stable even in storms or heavy waves,” Hart said.

A spar buoy “looks like a large pencil floating in the water, point down toward the ocean floor,” Hart said. Up to 300 feet long, and mostly submerged, the underwater section acts like a ship’s keel to stabilize the structure, which is anchored with mooring lines only “because you don’t want it waltzing around the ocean,” he said.

Dylan Voorhees, energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental organization, said: “From our point of view, to take some of those technologies and transform them into renewable power technologies would give us a certain satisfaction. I don’t know if I’d call it irony, but justice.”

Blue H, a British company based in the Netherlands, and StatoilHydro, of Norway, are experimenting with floating platforms for wind turbines. In 2007 Blue H put a tension-leg prototype in the waters off Italy. StatoilHydro plans to test a spar buoy device off Norway next year.

While environmental impacts have yet to be studied because a precise site has not been chosen, neither fixed nor floating platforms are expected to have a significant effect. Peter Jumars, director of the school of marine sciences at the University of Maine, said, “My biggest concerns would be with seabirds and marine mammals.” Seabirds could fly into the turbines, and fish or marine mammals could be disturbed by their noise – they would be louder than land-based machines.

Site location would have to take into account flight patterns, migration routes for mammals like whales, and competing human uses like shipping and fishing.

Still, such a development has potential upsides for the environment, beyond reducing pollution from dirtier energy sources. Studies have shown that oil platforms attract fish and plants, creating a kind of de facto marine sanctuary. Wind platforms could do the same. “I would imagine these would provide wonderful protected areas for fish where you can’t trawl,” Jumars said.

Dagher pointed out that floating structures could be decommissioned relatively easily at the end of their service life, in a projected 20 to 30 years.

Floating platform technology is well established, and installing turbines on them should present few technical challenges. The main hurdle is cost.

To combat that issue, Dagher and fellow researchers at the University of Maine are developing new composite materials that are lighter and stronger than steel. Expensive as some of these are, they can cut project costs over all.

Composite materials minimize corrosion caused by the ocean environment, extending the turbine’s life and reducing the cost of maintenance, Dagher said. And because the turbines weigh less than steel, construction crews can use smaller and less expensive cranes and ships to deploy them.

The strength and rigidity of these materials make it possible to build blades up to 100 meters long, Hart said. Since these would be difficult to transport over land, they would likely be built near the waterfront in Maine.

Manufacturing is just one type of job that supporters hope the project will bring to the state. “I see this as a huge economic development opportunity for Maine,” said Angus King, a former governor of the state, who has worked in renewable energy for much of the past 30 years. “This thing could create 20,000 to 30,000 jobs.”

Fishermen, who have seen their livelihoods devastated in recent years by falling catches and prices, could find secure jobs while still working on the water.

“You won’t be able to outsource the maintenance,” Jumars said. “It’s one of the few new opportunities on the working waterfront that I can foresee.”

In Europe, where there is much greater deployment of wind and solar, Hart said, “they’ve already created 350,000 jobs in renewable energy.”

Hart estimates that it will take five to seven years of testing before a commercial farm can be built. Researchers must first study the ability of the platforms and turbines to survive ocean storms. They must have aircraft industry-level reliability and the ability to self-diagnose problems. “Out at sea, you can’t afford to be running out there every other month to perform repairs on these things,” he said. Last, the turbines must deliver the promised amount of power.

“Those three qualities — survivability, reliability, and performance — are what investment bankers need to see before they’re going to put up the large amount of capital needed to build any of these things,” Hart said.

Simmons says that he does not plan to invest himself. He wants the institute to develop a viable business plan for major corporations and foundations to foot the bill. “I want to turn the Ocean Energy Institute into a serious equivalent of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute,” Simmons said, referring to the medical research philanthropy set up by Hughes, the billionaire aviation pioneer, in 1953.

Or the wind farm could be like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the U.S. government-owned corporation created in the 1930s to generate electricity and promote regional economic development.

The institute hopes to see full deployment within 10 years. That delay leads Voorhees of the natural resources council to say that, while the project seems promising, Maine should not wait to deploy other clean energy technologies that are ready to go.

“Nobody really knows if a large-scale, deep-water wind project is feasible and economic in the Gulf of Maine right now,” Voorhees said. “It needs to be tested.”

Still, King praises the project’s scalability. “One of the neat things about this energy option is, it’s not all or nothing,” he said. “With this option, we can build one or two or 10 turbines at a time, see how it works, see how the market develops, and build it out over time as the demand grows.”

While most of the team disagrees with Simmons on climate change, they agree that peak oil may affect the way people live sooner, in 10 years against perhaps 50 years for climate change.

“Different people can come to the same conclusion by different paths,” King said. “The important thing is that we agree on the solution.”