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October 27, 2010

I Was Totally Right To Be Skeptical!

By: Aaron Datesman

I wrote here that I was skeptical about a claim an NREL scientist made in my presence at an industry conference that the offshore wind resource in the US is sufficient to meet the country’s electricity demand. It turns out that I was totally right to be skeptical!

The gross resource has been quantified by state, water depth, distance from shore, and wind class throughout a band extending out to 50 nautical miles from the U.S. coastline.

This total gross wind resource is estimated at more than 4,000 GW, or roughly four times the generating capacity currently carried on the U.S. electric grid. (underlining mine)

The excerpt comes from a report recently released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL. Although I’ve been watching for more than a month, I haven’t seen this remarkable finding published anywhere in the press except for a brief mention in Salon.

The Salon article does include the very important additional point that only a portion of the available resource could possibly be harvested - perhaps only 60%. That’s still more electrical energy, totally renewable and zero-carbon, than we currently use, although numerous fundamental issues regarding grid integration and intermittency represent serious technical hurdles. Nevertheless, the scale of the opportunity is absolutely staggering.

What’s interesting to me is this: while you probably didn’t see any news about this fascinating engineering study, you probably did see some related news about the business-doings of Google. But this news doesn’t make very much sense without the context I just provided above.

Google and a New York financial firm have each agreed to invest heavily in a proposed $5 billion transmission backbone for future offshore wind farms along the Atlantic Seaboard that could ultimately transform the region’s electrical map. The 350-mile underwater spine, which could remove some critical obstacles to wind power development, has stirred excitement among investors, government officials and environmentalists who have been briefed on it.

The press in this country lets us down in so many ways, absolutely every day, that it continuously stretches my ability to believe their uselessness. I think there would be more demand for ambitious goals in renewable energy deployment if the public knew more about the scale of the opportunity which our leaders currently are resolutely not exploiting. But I’m grateful to the Times for including this gem, buried so deep in the article I doubt very many people noticed it:

Mr. Kempton of the University of Delaware and Mr. Wellinghoff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said the backbone would offer another plus: reducing one of wind power’s big problems, variability of output.

“Along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, we tend to have storm tracks that move along the coast and somewhat offshore,” Mr. Kempton said.

If storm winds were blowing on Friday off Virginia, they might be off Delaware by Saturday and off New Jersey by Sunday, he noted. Yet the long spine would ensure that the amount of energy coming ashore held roughly constant.

Now THAT’s fascinating: if we built a large enough generation and distribution network for renewable energy, a system which starts off as variable, unpredictable, unmanageable, and unusable at small scales could become consistent, predictable, and manageable. Once again, it’s not that we don’t have the resources, the knowledge, or the wealth to make the energy transition we need to make to meet the global warming challenge. Our failure is simply a failure to think at a scale appropriate to the opportunities we have and to the challenges we face. We have no talent for thinking big, no audacity.

On a personal note, I was gone for several months because I have moved my home to Washington, DC, where I am now working for the Office of Science within the Department of Energy. My expertise does not lie in the energy field, however, and all of the views I express in this blearff are strictly both my own and normal.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at October 27, 2010 11:08 PM

for the record i knew this almost 4 years ago! woo hoo hoo!

Posted by: hapa at October 28, 2010 12:44 AM

That's a pretty broad "we" you've got running there, in discussing talent.

I for one don't belong to it, because I understand that power drives its own needs, and will only save its non-essential staffers if it needs them to be essential.

The talent - and wealth - for thinking and acting on the "proper" scale exists. It's just that those with the goods aren't going to use it until it suits them.

They'll be audacious when they can get a big enough return on their investment - the sort of return that will keep them in memberships and the other perks of power.

And not a moment before, if ever.

Posted by: Jack Crow at October 28, 2010 01:28 AM

I neglected to include something else in this post which belongs here: the $5B investment in the transmission infrastructure compares to the $8B in loan guarantees the Obama administration offered for two nuclear plants in GA at the beginning of the year. If we (by the way, "we" means "the U.S. of A.") have the money for nuclear, why don't we have the money for this?

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at October 28, 2010 09:29 AM

Aaron, did you leave our beautiful city because you KNEW Rahm was returning?

Posted by: Rupa Shah at October 28, 2010 11:58 AM

$5 Billion won't begin to touch the transmission line requirements of an off-shore grid system. Kirchoff's current laws would still apply in sending said power from VA to Delaware or the reverse.

Posted by: Fred at October 28, 2010 01:56 PM

Rupa - I was sad to leave but will enjoy the winter here better. My wife took an irresistible job and I followed.

Fred - Yes, that's true. $5bn seems to be the price tag for a 6GW line - that's about 0.6% of the total power consumption across the entire country. I don't understand what Kirchhof's Current Law has to do with it. If you mean, it wouldn't work because the power would have to be sent long distances,

a) actually that's what's attractive about offshore wind, the resource is located near the energy consumers, and

b) HVDC transmission is quite promising to send power long distances (100s of miles).

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at October 28, 2010 07:23 PM

1) Welcome to Washington DC. There is a city under all of that government too!

2) My concern is that we need private investment in our electricity transmission. I'm questioning the wisdom of leaving this resource in private hands to be put to private uses as opposed to retaining public control over wind.

Posted by: Benjamin Arthur Schwab at October 29, 2010 08:48 AM

I think there's plenty of wind for everybody, private and public.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 30, 2010 11:24 AM

The incremental cost for generating the new MW of windpower electricity is zero. No fuel, no cost. Also all of the cost is capital cost of building the towers and connecting it to the grid. If the Feb can lend the banks at 0.5% then the government can and should finance the wind towers and the transmission lines. They can then sell the power to get back their investment.

Posted by: peter john at October 30, 2010 07:54 PM

speakin of wind farms:

Posted by: Jenny at October 31, 2010 04:35 AM

Hey, I want to believe but apparently 5 billion is a spit in the bucket. The reality is it costs about $1.5 billion to law about 40KM of HDVC underwater, so for 5 billion you get a whopping 200 KM. Keep in mind the entire Atlantic Seaboard is approximately 2500 KM. You would need at least $50-$100 billion (in current dollar terms) to complete the project. In short, its noble what Google is doing but it is going to take a lot more for this to be more than a fantasy pipedream.

Thought, if a company went into market selling equity in this venture I would buy a few shares. Considering the storm patterns on the East Coast, especially with "Global Warmin" this could be an electric dynamo and with improvements in power transmission, could power most, if not the entire grid.

Posted by: Publius Cato at November 1, 2010 06:25 PM