Offshore Wind Power Gains Speed

Commentary by Carrie Madren

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.

At the same time, President Barack Obama set a national goal during his January State of the Union address for 80 percent of U.S. electricity to come from clean sources by the year 2030. States, too, have been setting their own goals for renewable energy production.

Wind power will help keep our air clean and prevent environmental degradation, such as the damage from acid rain that has become a reality across the Mid-Atlantic. Coal-fired power plants produce harmful air pollutants and particulates that affect humans and wildlife. More than 76.5 million Americans are exposed annually to dangerous short-term levels of particle pollution, which has been shown to increase heart attacks, strokes, asthma and cardiovascular disease, according to the American Lung Association. Wind power also saves transportation — and pollution — costs associated with shipments of oil and other fossil fuels.

Coal mining provides fuel for coal-burning power plants and is important to the Appalachian and Eastern mountain region. But it is dirty, unhealthy and dangerous work, and the extraction process causes damage to landscapes and mountain habitats. Wind power is a better option for workers and the economy, too: According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Atlantic states would generate about $200 billion in new economic activity and more than 43,000 jobs would be created if we harnessed 54 gigawatts of the estimated 212.98 gigawatts of available offshore wind resources.

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.

So while minimal ecological disruption could exist, the benefits of cleaner air, domestic energy production and the use of renewable resources far outweigh the drawbacks. For this reason, environmental groups such as Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife have supported well-sited offshore wind power. Offshore wind power isn’t a silver bullet for all of our energy problems, but it’s clear that this resource is our best option in terms of energy production and today’s technology.

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.

Carrie Madren writes about environmental issues, Chesapeake life and sustainable living. She lives in Olney, Maryland. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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