BY STAS MARGARONIS, RBTUS/Jobs Bank
A European consortium, Friends of the Supergrid, is advertising the potential for fast-tracking construction of offshore wind farms by first building off-shore transmission lines as Europe continues to move forward with new wind farm development.
The Friends of the Supergrid (FOS) was making its case at the American Wind Energy Association off-shore wind conference in Baltimore on October 11th.
Unfortunately, U.S. off-shore wind farms and transmission lines are still waiting to be built.
One environmental representative attending the AWEA conference blames the Obama administration for failing to pass climate change legislation, which would have provided the renewable energy industry with the momentum to move forward.
One industry executive at the AWEA conference says that delays in getting U.S. permits are slowing down projects and he is concerned that supply chain issues, particularly in transmission cable, may cause further delays in getting U.S. wind farms built.
The executive noted that Europeans are pushing ahead with wind energy both as an environmental alternative to fossil fuel and as an energy alternative in case natural gas supplies are cut by Russia. He also noted there is a need to provide new wind energy to replace nuclear power that faces European investment cutbacks in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster.
As a result, the growth in European demand could cause supply problems for Americans seeking to build in the next few years because of issues such as a shortage of transmission cable that can only come from a small group of producers that are already producing at maximum capacity.
The industry executive believes that that an order for transmission line cable that is placed in 2011 could not now be delivered before the end of 2013. He cautions that the situation may be getting worse so that cable may soon not be available for five years.
This would be a disaster for U.S. off-shore wind farm producers who cannot build with transmission cable.
At the same time, technical challenges need to be addressed before large-scale off-shore transmission lines become a reality, says Alberto Schultze, director sales and marketing for Grid Access Solutions with the German power contractor, Siemens. To begin with, Schultze says Europe and the United States need to adopt a set of standards governing offshore power transmission that guard against an interruption of service in the event big quantities of offshore power generation are interrupted. In that case, there is the possibility that the power interruption could cause some power instability onshore.
The supply of cable is the second problem. Schultze echoes the U.S. industry executive warning about the shortage of transmission cable. The cable that is used for ocean transmission lines is designed to minimize any environmental impact to the seabed and can only come from a small group of manufacturers. As a result, there will continue to be shortages of this type of cable until manufacturers receive long-term commitments to assure building new factories to expand production.
Schultze points out that international cooperation between European countries is still in its early stages and until there are accepted standards for offshore power generation, large-scale construction of transmission lines and wind farms will only go forward as individual single projects with individual dedicated transmission systems.
A U.S. company, Atlantic Wind Connection, is proposing an off-shore transmission line linking power users between New Jersey and Virginia that would allow up to 7 GW (gigawatts) of off-shore wind farms to be built. The question is whether looming supply chain problems may retard AWC and others from moving forward.
Markian Melnyk, principal, Atlantic Wind Connection says that the project has received incentive approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and is in the process of meeting federal environmental impact requirements.
AWC hopes to be ready to build its off-shore transmission lines at the same time as new off-shore wind farms begin construction in 2016
Markian says that “AWC is making good progress convincing wind farm developers to connect to the AWC system because it saves them permitting time and construction costs in not building their own transmission system.”
UK-based Mainstream Renewable Power, which backs the FOS effort in Europe , is a partner with Siemens in SMart Wind, which was awarded a contract in 2009 by the UK government to develop off-shore wind farms capable of generating 4- 6GW of electricity.
Mainstream has put together a coalition of developers and power builders, Friends of the Supergrid to develop a blueprint for a European off-shore transmission system linking the UK, Denmark, Germany, Norway and others in an international off-shore transmission system that can fast-track construction of off-shore wind farms.
Joel Whitman, ceo of Global Marine Energy Inc., based in Boston, says that transmission cable-laying is a critical issue with new off-shore wind farm development, because mistakes can delay or stop projects that cannot connect to shore side grid operators. Whitman strongly supports transmission developers, like AWC laying down a transmission line for wind farms to connect to, because it will save in permitting and reduce the need for each developer to build their own transmission lines to connect to on shore grid connections.
Whitman says that European experiences are showing the wisdom of this approach.
New cable-laying ships built in the United States might be a possibility if the off-shore business takes off, he adds.
Adam Bruce, a spokesman for FOS and Mainstream, says that current proposals to build wind farms in UK waters would be encumbered by high costs of building individual transmissions lines to link each off-shore wind farm to an onshore power distributor. Bruce believes FOS and Atlantic Wind Connection are pursuing similar strategies that will help fast-track the development of off-shore wind farms.
Bruce argues that building a super grid to accommodate all the off-shore wind farms will reduce costs for developers . The super grid will also reduce landside power congestion that will reduce the threat of brown-outs and black-out and provide a newer transmission line to back up existing power lines : “The super grid will provide the land-side grid operators with an off-shore source of transmission. This will provide greater versatility in power generation.”
Bruce said the UK’s National Grid, a major grid operator, has added its support by telling wind farm developers that approvals for wind farms using the super grid will be much faster than without. This means developers face delays and extra cost going it alone with their own transmission lines.
At the same time FOS is supporting a phase one development of a super grid connecting the UK, Germany and Norway. Here, the developers see wind farms generating electricity that will also pump water into Norwegian reservoirs when wind is blowing in the North Sea. When wind is not blowing in the North Sea, the release of water to drive turbines Norwegian reservoirs can generate hydroelectricity. The result is North Sea off-shore wind and Norwegian hydropower will feed German, UK and Norwegian consumers with a steady stream of renewable energy.
The system is known as pumped storage and could be applied to the Pacific coast of the United States where hydroelectric power from the Columbia River dams between Oregon and Washington could provide a similar supply of wind and hydropower if wind farms were linked by a transmission super grid off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California. This would provide a similar source of renewable energy from Pacific coast consumers.
The U.S. Department of Energy projects that wind blowing off the U.S. Pacific coast can generates about 900 GW of electricity. A U.S. Department of Energy official estimates that 1GW would provide electricity for about one million homes.
One big question is whether funding is going to dry up for major off-shore developments if European and U.S. governments are cutting back on spending. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe is having an adverse impact on European economies and resistance to infrastructure spending in Congress is likely to undermine the prospects of initiatives to generate large-scale energy projects.
Adam Bruce remains hopeful. He insists that new power generation from off-shore sources will relieve onshore bottlenecks and provide a new source of clean, renewable power that will eventually become economically viable. Polls taken by AWC support the notion that rate payers will support higher rates that create renewable energy and new jobs. Bruce argues that as more wind farms are built the costs per kilowatt hour will go down and make off-shore wind and the transmission lines that support them increasingly affordable.