From shores all around the British isles, you can see them rising from the misty horizon: ranks of colossal wind turbines, giants standing in the shallows off the coast. They loom over places like the Thames estuary, the Firth of Forth, and Norfolk, their great arms facing out to sea to catch the steady offshore winds.
In Britain a green energy dream has become reality. Over the past 15 years the UK has built more than 8,680 wind turbines capable of generating a total of 18.4 gigawatts of electricity, with about a third of this capacity coming from offshore turbines. This effort provides about 10 percent of the country’s electricity and has helped take Britain off of dirty power sources: this year, for the first time since 1880, the country burned no coal for electricity. On March 19, an especially windy day, the turbines met about a third of Britain’s energy needs.
Ross Allen of the British consulate, director of the UK’s trade mission in New York, sees the offshore wind farms off the coast of his native East Kent as a sign of progress.
“When I’m back home seeing my family you can see them on the distant horizon,” he says. “In the port communities it has had a revitalizing effect in terms of jobs and local employment.”
Allen will be a participant in the International Offshore Wind Partnering Forum, a four-day event that runs through Friday, April 6, at the Westin Princeton in Forrestal Village. British companies will make up a sizeable proportion of the 130 companies attending along with firms from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, and other countries that have extensive experience building offshore wind power farms. The guest list also includes researchers from Princeton and other universities who will present the latest engineering breakthroughs. For more information, visit www.offshorewinds.us.
One prominent figure on the guest list is Governor Phil Murphy, who has made moves to revive offshore wind power in the state. Currently there is no offshore wind power in New Jersey and just one onshore wind farm of any size, an installation in Atlantic City.
Murphy, who wants New Jersey to be powered entirely by clean energy by 2050, has signed an executive order that fast-tracks several offshore wind projects that began in 2010 under the Christie administration but which have been held up by bureaucratic delays. The project is to be funded by government-guaranteed offshore renewable energy certificates — ORECs — that would help finance the private companies that would build the turbines. Under Christie, the ORECs were not granted, so Murphy has ordered the full implementation of the OREC program.
He has also tripled the intended scope of the project, setting out the goal of 3.5 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, enough to power 1.5 million homes, most of which would come from a pair of wind farms off the coast of Atlantic City, where Maryland-based U.S. Wind and Denmark-based Orsted have taken out leases.
There is also a smaller project moving forward; a small pilot offshore farm intended to prove its viability as a power source. The Fishermen’s Energy Proposal would create a $210 million, 24-megawatt farm three miles off the coast. Much like the other proposal, it was a Christie-era initiative that languished after first being proposed.
The geography of Atlantic City makes it an ideal spot for offshore power. Shallow waters extend for miles off the coastline, where turbines could take advantage of relatively windy conditions. Cables extending to land would put the electricity generated there directly into the main power grid.
With Murphy’s order, businesses see a huge potential windfall. The Business Network for Offshore Wind, a trade group, published a white paper in 2017 that makes the case for wind power in New Jersey, noting its success on the other side of the Atlantic. In Europe in 2016, offshore wind powered 13 million homes and employed 75,000 people.
“Offshore wind can power New Jersey’s economic recovery and give the state’s workers and businesses a role in projects elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region and the eastern United States,” the paper states. Some estimates say offshore wind will create 181,000 new jobs by 2050. Workers will be needed to design the installations, build the wind farms, lay cables, manufacture components, and perform maintenance. After construction is complete about 100 people are needed to operate each wind farm.
Some of those benefits could go to companies in the Route 1 corridor.
NRG, an energy company that owns power plants all around the country, has about 15 percent of its portfolio in clean energy, including a wind farm in Texas. It also has built the only wind turbines that can be seen in the Princeton area: a couple of vertical-axis turbines in the parking lot of its Route 1 headquarters to showcase the company’s commitment to sustainable energy. (Do these generate a meaningful amount of electricity? NRG did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.) NRG is not listed among the participants in the offshore wind conference.
WSP USA, a New York-based engineering firm with an office at 2000 Lenox Drive, is among the participants at the forum. The company has done engineering consulting work for numerous offshore wind projects in Europe as well as one in the U.S., the Cape Wind project off Massachusetts. WSP’s Lawrenceville office handles marketing work for the offshore wind division.
Matthew Palmer, who leads WSP’s offshore wind business, says New Jersey seems to be an ideal place to use offshore wind.
“The things that are conducive to having a good market for offshore wind are a good wind resource — if the wind doesn’t blow, you don’t want to put a wind farm there, and the Northeast has a pretty solid wind resource generally — and proximity to load. You want to be able to generate significant amounts of renewable energy and get it to the users of that energy very quickly. New Jersey is a well populated place.”
Onshore wind turbines tend to be located in remote flatlands where wind blows unimpeded, but offshore wind farms can be placed near cities, reducing the cost of transmitting power — and more than half of the entire U.S. population lives near a coast.
Shallow coastal waters in New Jersey help keep down construction costs. “You don’t have to put in enormous foundations to deal with huge water depths or floating turbines or that sort of thing,” he says. “We suspect, based on what we know about geological conditions, that construction will be affordable.”
Despite New Jersey’s advantages, offshore wind is still one of the more expensive power sources available. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, offshore wind in the U.S. will cost an average of $197 per megawatt hour of electricity produced by 2020. Onshore wind only costs $74 a megawatt hour, making it competitive with natural gas, which costs $73.
Palmer is skeptical that offshore wind will be cheaper than natural gas, which is New Jersey’s leading source of energy, any time soon. “Natural gas is pretty inexpensive in the U.S., and my hope is that at some point offshore wind can be competitive. To get down to a solidly lower price than natural gas is difficult, and I think the objective is to get competitive. I think that’s something we can achieve.
Proponents note that as technology advances, the cost of offshore wind has been dropping dramatically. Palmer said that in Europe, the industry had hoped to get the cost of wind energy below 100 Euros a megawatt hour (about $130) in 2017, but that prices had fallen well below that mark thanks to increasing economies of scale and improving technology.
Most offshore wind projects are created using government subsidies of some kind, but last year, Germany awarded two contracts for offshore farms with no subsidies.
One factor behind the increasing efficiency of wind power is the deployment of ever larger turbines.
“The advantage of that large size is that now you have one foundation and one installation that can produce the same amount of power that four years ago would have required three, so obviously that drives down the cost,” Palmer says.
In 2013 the largest wind turbines could produce 4 megawatts, and models with double that capacity are being installed at some wind farms. General Electric is developing a model that will produce a whopping 12 megawatts. That turbine, the largest the world has ever seen, is engineered on a mind-bogglingly gigantic scale: its rotor will be 650 feet in diameter. The Seattle Space Needle wouldn’t reach all the way across it.
Wind power faces obstacles other than cost. Polls show that most of the public supports wind power technology, but many people seem not to want them installed near their own homes. When the Cape Wind project was built, it faced waves of lawsuits from wind farm opponents, including local residents who thought the turbines would ruin the view from the shoreline. Locals who say “Not In My Back Yard” to new projects (NIMBYs) have proven to be a formidable obstacle. Past wind turbine projects have faced fierce opposition over concern about the appearance of the turbines and their effects on local fisheries as well as migratory birds.
Allen, the director of the UK Department for International Trade, says that the wind turbines near his hometown aren’t that bad. “It can be quite an appealing view,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest wind turbine opponent of all currently occupies the White House. Donald Trump is a longtime outspoken critic of wind power in general. In 2012 he tweeted “Not only are wind farms disgusting looking, but even worse they are bad for people’s health.” Again in 2014 he tweeted: “Windmills are the greatest threat in the US to both bald and golden eagles. Media claims fictional ‘global warming’ is worse.” During the 2016 campaign Trump went on several factually challenged rants about the supposed evils of the technology.
It’s impossible to say what is behind the president’s insatiable hatred of wind turbines, but it might have something to do with his business interests: He once unsuccessfully sued to stop a Scottish wind farm, claiming it would ruin the view from a golf course he owned there.
But barring presidential intervention, if wind power does take off in New Jersey, how much of the benefit will go to the locals? Much of the installation work — about 1,000 workers per wind farm during two to three years of construction — would go to local tradesmen such as carpenters and dock builders. Allen says offshore wind employs 11,000 people in Britain.
But when it comes to designing and building offshore wind farms, European engineers have more experience than their American counterparts, and it is likely that they would be key players in New Jersey’s wind business, at least at first.
Allen says British companies are keen to lend their expertise.
“We have a lot to offer,” Allen says. “There are some similarities between where the U.S. is now and where we were a few years ago, and we have gone about growing indigenous capacity and not just being reliant on other countries building things for us.” He says the U.S. would likely seek to strike a balance between working with established big players in the business — who are mostly from Europe — and developing indigenous capacity and a more local supply chain.
There is already a robust trade relationship between Britain and New Jersey, which is one of the logical port locations for British companies exporting goods to North America. New Jersey is Britain’s second biggest export market among the states, and New Jersey sends about $4 billion in products to Britain every year. (Surprisingly, the number one export of NJ to the UK is scrap metal, followed by aerospace products, medicine, cars, and printed material.)
Palmer, of WSP, also believes that foreign companies will play a large role in U.S. offshore wind at first. “That’s just where a lot of the experience exists,” he says. “But as the market develops and the infrastructure develops over here, and we construct and install a lot more offshore wind, more and more of that work will be done by us.” As U.S. firms gain experience, their shorter supply lines and ability to work in the same time zone will win out, Palmer says.
The offshore wind partnering conference has been going on for five years now, growing every year. Palmer says he has seen a huge increase in enthusiasm for the technology over his career.
“My first brush with offshore wind was at a Cape Wind public hearing in December, 2001,” he says. Palmer says Murphy’s announcement about the Cape May project has created excitement throughout the industry that will be reflected at the partnering forum.
“I’ve been doing this off and on for 17 years, and frankly the business has never been more exciting,” he says. “Every year there are more people there, and there is just more buzz and more enthusiasm.”
International Offshore Wind Partnering Forum, Westin, Princeton Forrestal Village. Tuesday through Friday, April 3 through 6. www.offshorewindus.org/2018ipf
WSP USA, 2000 Lenox Drive, Third Floor, Lawrenceville 08648. 609-584-0050. www.wspgroup.com