By Andy Kowalczyk
As a renewable energy advocate, I have frequent conversations about offshore wind energy with industry representatives and advocates, as well as friends and family. It might sound strange that I dedicate my time to an effort like this in a state like Louisiana. The level of interest dedicated to offshore wind compared to the state’s energy resources below ground, is next to nothing. Be that as it may, there is a tremendous amount of potential in the workforce and the capabilities of the oil and gas industry in Louisiana. It is hard to find another region in the country so uniquely equipped and suited to offshore wind work. In fact, the Louisiana firms Keystone Engineering, Gulf Island Fabrication and Falcon Global (formerly Montco Construction) all played pivotal roles in building the first offshore wind farm in the United States.
Still, there are always questions. ‘What about birds?’, ‘What about hurricanes?’, and ‘What about cost?’ These are understandable concerns. Correspondingly, the state is well-known for its beautiful sub-tropical birds, it’s dependable hurricane season, and last, there’s no way to sugarcoat this, the state has no love for renewable energy if it’s going to cost more than fossil fuels. These aren’t intractable concerns, and offshore wind projects take a number of years to develop. At the very least, there is time to plan for offshore wind in the state. With regards to those three questions, here are some answers.
It’s natural to worry about wind turbines and birds, but it’s worth putting this worry into context. Cats kill 3.7 billion birds a year in the US, buildings of various heights kill up to 988 million birds a year, but only 140–328,000 bird deaths are from wind turbine collisions. Climate change threatens 400 entire species in the country according to National Audubon Society’s study ‘Survival by Degrees’. Context, is everything.
This number of deaths from turbines should still be taken seriously however, and developers are increasingly finding ways to address this number and to reduce these deaths. More thoughtful environmental impact assessments are a big part of this effort, but here a few more:
Newer Turbines — I’m paraphrasing, but the energy reporter Russell Gold said recently, regarding older wind turbines, ‘You don’t judge me by who I was in the 90’s, and wind turbines should be the same.’ The turbines that were built by developers in the 80’s and 90’s were very inefficient. When they were not working, which was a lot of the time, birds would roost on them. So when they switched back on, the result was often a gruesome and heartbreaking scene. This did not last thankfully, and in the early 2000’s wind turbine technology had reached a point where it delivered both affordable and abundant power that did not lead to these truly unfortunate scenarios.
Proper Siting — Deciding where to put a wind farm shouldn’t just be about how much wind is in the area. Good developers assess the effects on birds by studying flight paths, migratory patterns and conducting interviews with local experts, bird watchers and naturalists. There are also rigorous reviews of government reports and environmental literature associated with the impacts of a project. All of this leads to a decision on whether or not there will be a severe impact to the environment by putting a wind farm in an area.
As it pertains to birds in the Gulf of Mexico, studies related to offshore wind in Europe have shown much lower collision rates than those onshore.
Radar Technology and Monitoring (3:12) — The use of more refined radar technology is increasingly being used by wind farm operators to determine when birds are in the area of a large project. When birds are detected, the blades of turbines are either remotely turned or ‘feathered’ to effectively stop blades, or a brake is used for the same effect. Many operators will stop turbines to prevent further bird deaths if and when monitoring technology registers a bird collision. They also may choose not to turn wind turbines on in lower wind, which benefits birds and bats that prefer to fly in low wind conditions.
Radar monitoring may be a useful asset during bird migrations in the Gulf of Mexico. Monitoring flight paths can also establish a deeper understanding of bird behavior and flight that could be beneficial for scientists, as well as offshore wind.
Oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are plentiful, and it may be cheaper up front to put a wind turbine on an oil rig, but will it stand up to a hurricane? It’s important to understand a simple fact — there are tradeoffs with anything. Although this approach was tried by a firm in Scotland, it’s largely considered more durable to build a new foundation for a wind turbine, than to retrofit. Keystone Engineering in Louisiana has engineered probably the most resilient solution so far. To ensure wind turbines can endure the stress put on a turbine in hurricane force winds is vitally important in avoiding costly losses.
There is a clear economic benefit to Louisiana in building new platforms rather than using existing platforms. This was demonstrated in the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island that was almost completely designed, built and developed by firms in Louisiana. New platforms mean new jobs. The answer to the question ‘What about hurricanes’, might be answered by another question — ‘Is there a better state to make tougher wind turbines than Louisiana?’
Costs are Falling
The challenge of carrying a big idea to market is an old one. Even when that idea has broken through to the mainstream elsewhere. While turbines were sprouting throughout the North Sea, providing wind power to many European countries, offshore wind has been in somewhat of an awkward phase across the Atlantic, suffering from false starts throughout the past ten years that drove up costs and drove down interest in projects. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) estimates however, the industry is on the cusp of a significant boom in the US. One that could build enough offshore wind to power 1.3–2 million homes an hour. It’s estimated that prices will decline significantly due to this investment in offshore wind. In fact, it already has. The contract for developer Vineyard Wind’s latest project off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard is the first project to come within the price-range of fossil fuel resources in the US.
The Winds of Change
Within ten years, offshore wind could be an affordable source of clean energy in Louisiana. One that is resilient, has limited impacts on the environment and clear economic benefits for the region. This requires effort and engagement just like building hurricane resistant wind farms or avoiding unnecessary impacts on wildlife. It will take time, but to develop a vision for a regional offshore wind industry and new energy jobs in the state providing clean and affordable electricity, the state should act today.
Louisiana’s Governor can initiate an ‘offshore wind task force’ to pave the way for offshore wind projects that benefit the local economy and offer new resources for affordable electricity. Our federal delegation of senators and representatives can also act to support federal investment tax credits for offshore wind today, that accelerate the path to more efficient and affordable offshore wind projects that can secure more contracts like Block Island Wind Farm and help boost local industries and diversify our energy workforce. With offshore wind on the cusp of a global boom, Louisiana can harness these winds of change, and use them to power a new offshore energy boom in the state.