A developed network of offshore wind turbines could power the entire United States of America. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there is a potential 4,150 gigawatts of energy which can be collected from offshore wind collection around the country’s waters. The total electric generating capacity of the entire nation was 1,010 gigawatts as of 2008. All of this energy can be collected from waters within 50 nautical miles of America’s shorelines.
There are many obstacles in the way of increasing the scale of these technologies. Currently, offshore wind projects in America have capital costs of about $6,000 per kilowatt during installation, compared with about $1,940 per installed kilowatt for land-based wind projects. This is according to the recent Offshore Wind Market and Economic Analysis report released by the U.S. DoE, mentioned above.
The DoE has been pouring a lot of money into funding projects in the hopes of spurring development of offshore wind projects. In recent years, the agency has given more than $300 million to 72 projects involving offshore wind energy, including laboratory research and offshore installation. Once developed, the capacity of offshore wind farms to handle onshore energy needs seems pretty tremendous. For example, the Cape Wind offshore wind project nearing completion off of the coast of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod will produce 75 percent of all of the electricity used on Cape Cod as well as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island.
The Current State of Federally Funded Offshore Wind Projects
In the few years since 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy has allocated approximately $227 million towards funding projects centered on offshore wind research, development and demonstration. These projects are typically focused on three key areas that must be addressed to bring down the installation costs of offshore wind and increase its energy potential: technology development, market acceleration and advanced technology demonstration.
Offshore wind farms face unique problems in seafloor depth and corrosion from ocean water which can cause higher operational costs in the form of maintenance team transport and replacement components. Offshore wind technology development projects are needed to develop tools for engineering modeling and analysis which can spur further innovation and lower the facility costs for offshore projects. In 2011, 19 of these projects received $26.5 million from the DoE; these projects are expected to reach completion during 2016.
Funding projects which allow the integration of offshore wind energy generation to onshore electrical grids, and demonstration-scale projects which can identify critical steps for larger future projects, are other focal points for DoE funding. Indiana University, Savannah River National Laboratories, The Biodiversity Research Institute, The University of Delaware, Case Western University and The Global Wind Network are just a few of the organizations which the DoE has either partnered with or provided funding for market acceleration projects addressing a wide array of environmental concerns and issues with the supply chain for offshore wind energy harvesting. Three technology demonstration projects, one each in Oregon, Virginia and New Jersey, may receive up to $46.7 million each by 2017, when they would likely achieve commercial operation.
Offshore Wind Market and Economic Analysis
In late August of this year, the Department of Energy published the findings of the Offshore Wind Market and Economic Analysis, prepared by the Navigant Consortium, a global consulting firm. Highlights of the report include analyses of 14 offshore wind projects, which would produce a combined total of 4,900 megawatts, that are currently in advanced stages of development. Most of this development is focused off the shores of Virginia, where current projects would create 2,012 megawatts of renewable wind energy. Decreasing capital costs per kilowatt are also trending downwards, by 3.7 percent during 2013.
The report also discussed a fair amount of economic activity that could develop from a mature offshore wind energy infrastructure. Depending on the level of investment in offshore wind technologies, the industry could employ anywhere from 550 to 5,150 full-time employees. The Navigant Consortium report calls the current level of investment in offshore wind energy “modest” and indicates that total investment by the United States could reach $1.1 billion.
There are multiple challenges facing the development of offshore wind technologies, one of the most major being those of cost-competitiveness with onshore wind and other alternative energies, especially natural gas. Much of the added capital costs reported by Navigant take into account extra costs posed by the immature nature of the industry. These include workforce training and development of manufacturing facilities and purpose-built ports and vessels for offshore wind turbine installation.
Recent Patents in Offshore Wind Technologies
With all of this recent activity regarding the development of offshore wind energy harvesting technologies, we at IPWatchdog wanted to take a look at recently issued patents in this field. What we saw was that intellectual property development in this field has been occurring in coastal countries all over the world, suggesting the global need for alternative energy development.
Many of these innovations get at the root of some of the problems in cost competitiveness that has dampened financial investment in offshore wind energy projects. A solo American inventor protected a cost-effective method of deploying an offshore wind turbine assembly through U.S. Patent No. 8740543, issued under the title Offshore Wind Turbines and Deployment Methods Therefor. This patent, assigned to Lloyd E. Weaver of Harpswell, ME, protects a method of deploying a wind turbine assembly with a vessel, anchoring the turbine in place and then attaching blades to the turbine. The method protected by this patent could save up to $2,000 per kilowatt by increasing the speed and decreasing the costs of deployment.
Another invention related to the cost-effective moving of wind turbines, specifically floating wind turbines, to offshore locations is protected by U.S. Patent No. 8770126, which is titled Method and Apparatus for Towing Offshore Wind Turbines. Assigned to Statoil ASA of Stavanger, Norway, this patent protects a method of towing floating turbines that involves positioning the turbine so that the nacelle is positioned away from the water, reducing the risk of water damage affecting the components. The new configuration for the turbine during towing also allows the turbine to float through shallower waters, saving money in deployment.
Floating offshore wind turbines are one way to solve the costs of installing many extra meters of wind turbine tower to anchor the turbine to the sea floor. We noticed a few other developments involving floating offshore turbines, including the energy generating device protected by U.S. Patent No. 8729723, entitled Removable Offshore Wind Turbines with Pre-Installed Mooring System. This patent protects and discloses a floating energy generating device comprised of at least two wind turbines on a floating structure of submerged hollow interconnected tubes. The floating stability invention results in cost-effective solutions for installation and maintenance. This patent was assigned to Single Buoy Moorings, Inc., of Marly, Switzerland.
General Electric is a major American corporation involved in developing improvements to wind energy technologies, so it’s not surprising to see them involved in research and development specific to offshore wind energy technologies. U.S. Patent No. 8511013, titled Wind Turbine Tower and System and Method for Fabricating the Same, protects for General Electric the manufacture of a plurality of wind turbine tower sections secured to each other through a series of concrete flanges. This innovation is designed to maintain the structural integrity of offshore wind turbine assemblies while making those wind turbine towers less susceptible to erosion. Another U.S. organization involved in offshore wind energy development is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT was recently issued U.S. Patent No. 8698338, which is titled Offshore Energy Harvesting, Storage, and Power Generation System. The buoyant structure protected in this patent has equipment for harvesting energy from wind as well as ocean waves or currents. The invention also has some applications in the field of offshore oil production.
We’ll conclude our survey of recently patented offshore wind energy technologies with a look at a couple of patents protecting improvements to offshore wind turbine installation, another problem area that reduces the cost-effectiveness of offshore wind energy generation. A vessel designed specifically for the installation of offshore wind turbines has been protected through U.S. Patent No. 8701579, simply titled Offshore Wind Turbine Installation. This patent, assigned to ITREC B.V. of Schiedam, a Netherlands city, protects an offshore wind turbine installation vessel which can substantially reduce the vertical motion of a wind turbine mast relative to its pre-installed foundation. This allows wind turbines to be installed properly during more adverse weather conditions and allows the installation of taller and heavier wind turbines. An improved method of installing wind turbines in shallow water less than 30 meters deep is protected by U.S. Patent No. 8753040, entitled Offshore Installation Method of a Wind Power Generator and its Fabrication Segments. The method, patented by Ship and Ocean Industries R&D Center of New Taipei, Taiwan, involves the prefabrication of a wind power generator before shipping to an installation location, reducing installation time. The method also promotes a steady delivery for wind turbine components, preventing component damage that may result from shaking during deliver.
Article updated at 12:18pm Eastern on Thursday 9/18 to correct the number of gigawatts mentioned in the second paragraph. An earlier version of the article was off by a factor of 1,000. The U.S. has potential for 4,150 gigawatts and total U.S. consumption as of 2008 was 1,010 gigawatts.