Conventional wisdom holds that wind power is limited by intermittency--the problem of what to do when the wind stops blowing. Getting power from where it's windiest to where it's needed is an additional difficulty. Wind farms have also faced opposition due to noise, shadow flicker and aesthetic considerations. Yet a new plan to create a transmission backbone off the Atlantic coast "shows that all of these obstacles can be overcome," says Jackie Savitz, senior scientist for the nonprofit group Oceana.
The latest plan for harnessing offshore wind power represents "a serious, functioning dean-energy infrastructure the likes of which the country's never had" says Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. The backbone has the potential to surpass any rumored wind limitations and is promising enough to have secured substantial funding from Google. And this transmission backbone could eventually be part of something much larger--a Department of Energy study calls for 54 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, enough to power over 30 million homes.
The Atlantic transmission line should create capacity for some two million homes. The first phase will reach from Delaware through the southern New Jersey coast, phase B will move north, and phase C will be off Virginia (with flexibility for additional phases). When completed, the project will likely cost $5 billion, and will carry power from Virginia to New York City.
The backbone will "link multiple wind farms along a regional system," explains Markian Melnyk, president of Atlantic Wind Connection, which is coordinating the construction. With wind farms in multiple locations on a single system, "you've shrunken the aggregate variability" he adds. "So that means you need less conventional back-up power. That means wind energy is more valuable, because it's more reliable."
For example, if Melnyk's mother in Queens, New York, needs energy and the weather is mild near her, she'll get wind power from where it's strong--say off the Virginia coast. The Mid-Atlantic Bight (a coastal region running from Massachusetts to North Carolina), where the backbone is located, is wind rich, and a network of wind farms will be able to harness and transmit wind power from various weather systems as they move through the region.
While minimizing environmental impact, the new transmission line will also provide a desperately needed addition to our aging energy infrastructure. "At the end of the day," says Melnyk, utilities are looking for "a whole new robust path for power to move through the region." The backbone will zip power to where it is needed, making it a "real regional application of smart grid technology," he says, controlled in real time with fiber optics and a central computer.
And worries about threats to birds and bats that surround onshore wind power are greatly reduced offshore, particularly for those wind farms located more than 10 miles off the coast. Savitz says that her organization has looked at how offshore wind farms might impact "everything from birds to worms," and said any potential harms are easily mitigated. …