A Shift in the Winds

Mon, 2013-07-22 09:18

A new network of offshore wind power is planned to be constructed along the East Coast. The key to this design is the creation of a main line that would serve as a “backbone” connecting wind farms together and alleviating the hassle of running individual power lines from each individual farm itself to the coast. The main transmission line is supposed to reach from New York all the way down to Southern Virginia when completed. The first leg of this project to be completed is a 189-mile segment off the coast of New Jersey. New Jersey officials hope to add 1,100 megawatts of power to the state’s energy production. However, several supporters of the project feel that this initial segment has the potential to produce nearly 3,000 megawatts.

Another reason that developers are excited about this project is that these new wind farms would have transmission lines buried underneath the ocean floor. Because the lines are underground, they are relatively resistant to storm damage from winter weather and hurricanes. After the severe power outages cause by Hurricane Sandy this past fall, state and federal government officials are eager to find an alternative solution to the traditional power grid so that hospitals and emergency response facilities can maintain power during storms. However, according to utility experts, the main problem is still the on-land distribution lines, which would still be affected by the storms and would therefore still prevent power from reaching homes and facilities.

Navigating the Labyrinth

The U.S. power grid has long been a cause of frustration for wind developers. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson described America’s power transmission infrastructure a “third-world grid” because of its inefficiency, poor design, and over 500 different owners. Power grids are usually designed on a state-by-state basis, making it very difficult to conduct interstate power distribution exports or imports. The grids are usually designed by utilities to reflect access to local resources and commercial interests. These difficulties to transmit power pose major problems for wind power because the wind power produced is lost if it is not used almost immediately. In high-output wind power regions in the Midwest and Northwestern U.S., wind power production often exceeds demand, but due to the fact that the grid usually can’t send the electricity to an energy market in demand, it is often wasted.

A Possible Solution

To help solve the problem of wasted wind power, U.S. Department of Energy scientists are looking into the potential of storing wind power in underground volcanic rock formations in the Pacific Northwest region. The current focus is on basalt reservoirs in Washington. The whole initiative is studying how realistic the process of compressed air energy storage is for preserving excess wind power. In this process, air is pumped into underground tunnels and reservoirs under pressure. Later, when power is needed, the compressed air is then heated. As it is released and expands, it turns a turbine to produce electricity. Storing wind energy for as little as 12 hours can make a huge difference in regards to demand for energy. This is especially true when buildings need to be heated on cold winter nights and cooled during peak afternoon hours in the summer heat. The viability of this process for the storage of offshore wind energy is far more questionable. However, the main idea behind storing offshore wind energy, which due to their typical satellite locations severely limits the reach of their output, could be crucial to the eventual success of the east coast offshore wind network.

Regardless of the problems that may arise with transmission lines and power grid designs, the broader implications of this wind network initiative are much more optimistic. This project signifies a substantial expansion of U.S. power production into the renewable sector. The construction and development of this network is also likely to spur economic growth and create jobs throughout the mid-Atlantic region. In the words of New Jersey State Senate President Michael M. Sweeney, his state’s offshore project is “exciting, especially in a state with the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the nation.” Hopefully this initiative can deliver on both its potential for power and job production.

By Peter J. Bock & Nolan Canter