The Wind Over the Waves
April 13, 2008 3:24 AM   Subscribe

Is offshore wind power the renewable energy of the future?

Herman Schellstede is no stranger to the Gulf Coast. The son of an engineer who helped build the first offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Schellstede has spent the past 40 years designing offshore oil platforms, drilling rigs and pipelines. But now he’s using his expertise in marine engineering to build a different kind of offshore structure: a wind farm
posted by thatwhichfalls (41 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
More on the North Sea Beatrice Field wind project here.

Family, bench, wind turbines. Swalecliffe, Kent.

University of Delaware working group on offshore wind power in the College of Marine Studies.

Floating Platforms Could Cut Cost Of Offshore Wind Power

Texas Holds Strong Potential for Offshore Wind Power: The state is leading the nation in onshore wind production and houses several wind-related research bodies that are world-leaders in their fields.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:56 AM on April 13, 2008

This is one issue that Ted Kennedy has completely dropped the ball on. His NIMBY efforts to block the Cape Wind project are doing a disservice to his constituents and to the planet.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:14 AM on April 13, 2008 [6 favorites]

I should point out I'm totally not in favour of this stuff. I work in the oil drilling industry and want all this renewables stuff stamped out. Taxes, wars, giant solar shades - don't care. Stop it.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:22 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is offshore wind power the renewable energy of the future?
It's one of 'em.
posted by DenOfSizer at 5:00 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

I bet if you put a turbine on my ass it would harvest a lot of power from my farts.
posted by DenOfSizer at 5:00 AM on April 13, 2008

I would like to see a car powered by thousands of really tiny windmills. Take THAT oil companies!
posted by pencroft at 5:26 AM on April 13, 2008

The opposition to off shore wind (some googled hysteria re Lake Michigan) completely stumps me. The argument that it "destroys the view," interferes with bird migration and whatnot didn't seem to stop the building of hideous cell phone towers across our beautiful prairie landscape (what--no birds migrate across Indiana?). The problem is that the robber barons haven't figured out a way to make a killing at this while also gouging us for the privilege of using it.
posted by nax at 5:33 AM on April 13, 2008

That picture was taken not far from where I am, it's visible from the beach at Crosby. When I first saw it, it struck me as such a great idea, and yet it gets considerable opposition. I never understood why. If anything, the sight of turbines on the horizon seems like a futuristic vision of hope, not an eyesore. But this is Britain, and we will complain about anything.
posted by Acey at 5:46 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's getting harder and harder to criticise this stuff. The engineering and the economics are getting to the point that it can't be dismissed as a childish indulgence as renewables so often have been in the past.

Look at the pictures of the Beatrice Field wind turbines in the main link. That's the North Sea - hideous conditions for people and machines to work in (as I know personally) and yet there's a major company investing in putting up turbines.

Frankly, the Gulf of Mexico is probably a non-starter for this stuff because a tetchy hurricane would take out a whole wind farm in an evening. The hatred of offshore wind farms on the US NE and NW coasts is really bizarre to me though. I think they look great (see Swalecliffe link above) and the technology has got to the point that they can make a vast contribution to the national power requirements.

Anyway. I don't care. My pay is tied to the price of oil. Just wish I was still getting paid in Pounds Sterling.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 5:52 AM on April 13, 2008

The rush for offshore wind has meant that there's hardly a decent turbine in the 200-750kW range to be had. This is a useful size for agricultural installation, but the majority of the industry's effort in the last decade has been towards multi-megawatt machines. Sure, you can still get (a dwindling supply of) refurbed smaller Vestas and Bonus machines, but they're not optimized for moderate wind sites or populated places.
posted by scruss at 6:02 AM on April 13, 2008

I've wondered about this also, scruss. Back to my recent drive across Indiana-- why don't more small towns and indepedent farms have wind turbines? Especially as this was how remote places got their electricy before the Rural Electrification Act, so there's historical precedent.
posted by nax at 6:06 AM on April 13, 2008

scruss : is that driving the industry towards higher production of turbines? Or is it regarded as a temporary fad that's not worth investing in?
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:40 AM on April 13, 2008

I really hope we can use wind technology. I think they are awesome looking and great feats of engineering. I was talking with a wind tech one time and he told me one of their biggest challenges is keeping the tips of the blade from hitting Mach 1. That, and dealing with vibration that could take the whole thing down. How cool is that?

I feel uncomfortable with them just because we are unsure if they disrupt local weather patterns. For example, there's a whole slew of them coming in on the eastern side of the Rockies. Well, fronts off the Rockies hit the Great Plains and collide with warm moist air from the Gulf and gives the US the precipitation over the bread basket. What if we are messing with that, just a little bit?

Everything we do seems fine on a small scale until we go massive. It seems there is very little we humans do that doesn't affect the planet somehow, from simple farming to dams to driving our cars. Given our track record, it seems reasonable that wind farms will also affect it, maybe we just don't know how yet. I wish instead of a drive to replace energy, we had a drive to decrease our energy needs. But until we figure that out, I'm glad this energy source is starting to get its due.

And thatwhichfalls, I'm surprised you didn't include this link from the Feb. AAPG Explorer about windfarms from an oil company perspective, and has a great slide show of the turbines being moved into place into deep water.
posted by barchan at 7:01 AM on April 13, 2008

The deep water wind farms are really something, but there will most likely be a whole slew of technical challenges that will crop up in the course of operating them, just like with the original offshore wind farms.
Here in Denmark we have had some years now of hearing about the Horns Rev wind farm, one of the first large scale projects of this kind, and the first in the North sea, and the problems it has had. It was completed in 2002, and the specific problems has been embarrasingly predictable; Corrosion, problems with maintenance due to inaccessibility and things like that.
The lesson learned is pretty simple; don't be the first to try new things!
However I think the idea is good, if you can get your hands on a wind turbine that has proven reliability and resistance to harsh conditions, and the procedures to maintain them are well developed.
Certainly the energy companies around here hasn't been soured on the idea, but they are probably a bit more cautious about deploying the latest and greatest (unproven) turbines.
posted by Catfry at 7:21 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

It certainly is for sailboats.
posted by jimmythefish at 7:22 AM on April 13, 2008

we are unsure if they disrupt local weather patterns.

Are you serious? This reminds me, when the high Great Plains were being settled, hucksters sold the sod busters that every year the rains would fall 18 miles further west because the steam from the railroads was seeding the sky. People believed it and moved into otherwise arid regions on the belief that the rains would pick up.
posted by stbalbach at 7:36 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can put me in the group that completely fails to understand the opposition to wind power. Maybe it's because I appreciate sleek, modern design, or maybe it's because I'm an engineer and an environmentalist, but whenever I see the wind farms in west Texas I always think "Wow, that is SO COOL AND BEAUTIFUL." Wind and solar farms are, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most visible representations of modern man learning to live with the planet instead of just mooching off of it.

I'll somewhat boldly make a prediction here and predict that the future of energy production is going to be extremely diffuse. You'll probably see large wind farms in the great plains and offshore, but you'll also see most houses and other buildings having solar panels and solar water heaters, and possibly small wind turbines as well. Appropriate locations will have generating stations run by geothermal energy, or wave power, or hydro, or whatever.

Power system engineering is, I think, going to be a really interesting field over the next few decades.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:52 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

stbalbach While disruption of local patterns seems a bit far fetched, it doesn't seem unreasonable to wonder about the impact on the global climate. We are removing energy from a system, not much at the moment but more every day, that has to have an impact of some sort. Possibly a good impact, but to simply assume that the atmosphere is too big to be affected by withdrawing megawatts from it is foolish, the same sort of nonsense that leads to climate change denial.
posted by sotonohito at 8:06 AM on April 13, 2008

This is a bit of an aside, to poke a bit of fun at the "spoils the landscape" folks

When the Golden Gate Bridge was being built, mucho opposition that it would ruinithe view of the Bay. Now of course it is the very icon of San Francisco. Now, years later, and hundreds of suicides from the bridge, opposition to putting up fences on the bridge because though it might save some lives it would ruin the view!

So it goes...
posted by Postroad at 8:29 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

How much energy do we need to pull out of the atmosphere with wind turbines before we start to see environmental effects?

It's worth remembering that the weather goes all the way up, and doesn't just rest on the ground at turbine level, so there's quite a bit more energy in that system than you might imagine.
posted by Artw at 8:33 AM on April 13, 2008 [4 favorites]

And thatwhichfalls, I'm surprised you didn't include this link from the Feb. AAPG Explorer about windfarms from an oil company perspective, and has a great slide show of the turbines being moved into place into deep water.

Looking at those links I'm surprised as well - that slide show is great. I love those stupidly big offshore projects. Remind me to tell you some time about going on deck on the Sedco 703 one morning only to see the Lorelay right next to the rig ...

For those who aren't aware, scruss is a windfarm designer so his input carries a lot more weight than mine - I agree with LastOfHisKind though, in that it seems to me the only way forward is to use every minimally destructive energy source available. Given that the total global accessible wind energy is estimated to be 72 TW (a huge number but still a tiny fraction of the mechanical energy in the earths' atmosphere) it seems that wind would be a sensible part of any energy budget.

What I find amazing is how far the technology has come. It's real science fiction material to me.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:35 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Postroad writes "When the Golden Gate Bridge was being built, mucho opposition that it would ruinithe view of the Bay. Now of course it is the very icon of San Francisco. Now, years later, and hundreds of suicides from the bridge, opposition to putting up fences on the bridge because though it might save some lives it would ruin the view!"

Not too surprising really, after all you never hear people complaining about how the piano ruined music either.
posted by Mitheral at 9:23 AM on April 13, 2008

I had an odd dream the other night. I was working at an "energy off loader station" in Norfolk. There were these large sailboats with tons of batteries in the holds. The boats would sail out to the deep ocean, lower their sails, raise a wind turbine to recharge the batteries, come back and plug in to the grid to be drained.

It also had something to do with a large cat eating chocolate cake, but I don't think that part is relevant to the topic.
posted by Ludi at 9:29 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

An older article on WEST said they had planned to repurpose obsolete oil rigs as offshore wind turbine platforms. That seemed like a thrifty and green sort of idea, but this newer story doesn't mention that. I wonder what happened.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:05 AM on April 13, 2008

The opinion that a windmill will have a significant impact on climate is perplexing. A windmill extracts energy from the wind, meaning that on the lee side of the mill the wind will be weaker - the effects will be comparable to a few large trees. Comparing this effect to the effects of burning coal is nonsense; Climate change is a result of a higher absorption of the sun's energy due to CO2, not the result of the heat release of the coal.
posted by Psychnic at 10:47 AM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Offshore is probably better, because wind generators on land are brutal to bat populations, wiping them out in some areas. Bats eat more insects than anything else. By the way, there are other methods of generating power from waves (rotational arms on submerged buoys are one) and these could probably be combined with platforms.
posted by Brian B. at 11:18 AM on April 13, 2008

Not too surprising really, after all you never hear people complaining about how the piano ruined music either.

Actually, people argue for hours about the ramifications of piano tuning on Western music. I have some extremely strong feeling on the matter myself and basically consider pianos out of tune and Bach's equal temperament scheme to be an affront to musicality and expression. The ubiquity of autotune in the studio and the relentless use of electronic or strobe tuners is changing music into a bland, homogenized harmonic product and destroying the tonal fluidity that marks musical milestones such as "Good Vibrations," barbershop quartets, and Appalachian field hollers. The natural variations in intervals shifting with chord and key centers that characterized live music prior to the use of taped backing tracks lent an emotional reality to performance that we're giving up in favor of the aural equivilent of a McDonald's hamburger.

I am the James Howard Kunstler of tuning.
posted by stet at 11:43 AM on April 13, 2008 [5 favorites]

But trees make oxygen!
posted by Artw at 11:44 AM on April 13, 2008

I went to an interesting lecture by Dan Engstrom from the Minn. Science Museum a few weeks ago on the impact of no-till farming on sedimentation in streams. No-till farming and better irrigation management practices to increase water efficiency, like terrace farming, have been implemented all over the American west to prevent soil erosion and water waste. It's generally hailed as an excellent, forward thinking solution to increase our sensitivity toward the environment.

Dr. Engstrom found during the course of his study that since the implementation of these farming practices, sedimentation into rivers has increased (in a 150 year study). While erosion from fields has decreased as wanted, sedimentation had increased to levels way above datums prior to the onset of farming. Why? Because water was being so "efficiently" funneled off of fields, thus creating rapid erosion in ravines and streambanks. The study concluded new farming practices may actually be harming the environment.

I bring this up because it's an excellent example of how we "think" something is better for the environment or for us - such as building dams to prevent flooding - and turn out wrong. Boldly declaring something humans do won't affect the environment long-term is foolish.

b1tr0t is right - we used to think a little coal burning wouldn't hurt anything, and it didn't until we burned coal on a massive scale; now we're adopting the same attitude with wind power. We don't know how massive wind turbine farms everywhere will affect anything because it hasn't been done yet. It's not just global warming we have to worry about, it's the entire system. You can't work to mitigate one problem without thinking about other problems that your solution could cause. It's like the rats and cats scenario - you have a problem with rats, you bring in cats, now you have a problem with cats. We have a chance here to be proactive and carefully monitor for any potential effects this very excellent solution might have as we implement it, and we need to take it. Implement, but monitor. Our attitudes should be dynamic, not stubborn.

I too agree with LastOfHisKind's Future Vision, but as I said earlier, I wish we would decrease energy needs as well as come up with alternative energy sources. Solving the symptoms doesn't solve the problem.
posted by barchan at 11:49 AM on April 13, 2008

First of all, the energy taken out of the wind by a turbine is less then the energy taken out of the wind by a large building or even a tree. Although they have been known to be harmful to birds, although I've also heard that larger turbines are not as harmful.

Anyway, I think I sort of understand the people who claim they are ugly or whatever, I think they can be a little ugly. Rather then some natural vista, you have this vista with all these big white towers as far as the eye can see. If you put them in places which are already bland, then I guess it's not as big of a deal, but still.

I also can see why seeing them on the horizon while looking out on the ocean could be annoying. The beauty of an ocean view is that, in a way, you're looking off into infinity, but if there is a wind-farm on the horizon that's not longer the case. You're looking at a wind-farm off in the distance. Sure they're high-tech and futuristic, but the novelty wears off, you know.

Imagine a future where the whole of the ocean was covered in wind turbines except for a few shipping lanes. There would be nowhere to 'get away from it all' the entire surface of the earth would fold into the empire of man.

Obviously we need to get our CO2 levels under control, but we should also consider aesthetic issues as well.
posted by delmoi at 11:59 AM on April 13, 2008

Aestetic considerations should be wheighted below factors of sustainability in my opinion.
posted by Catfry at 1:55 PM on April 13, 2008

posted by Catfry at 1:55 PM on April 13, 2008

Frankly, the Gulf of Mexico is probably a non-starter for this stuff because a tetchy hurricane would take out a whole wind farm in an evening.

Wouldn't it be possible (and maybe already has been, for all I know) to design a windmill whose blades can be lined up and more-or-less stowed inline with the 'stalk' of the structure, presenting basically a stick-shape to hurricanes or typhoons, which would presumably remain basically unaffected by the high winds during a storm?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:48 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

aww crap, youse folks were awful busy when I was away:

nax: there's little incentive (apart from appropriate personal responsibility) to build small rural wind installations when your power comes down the line for cheap. Feed-in tariffs help with that.

thatwhichfalls: the industry is going gangbusters to build capacity; Siemens (formerly Bonus) has increased manufacturing something like eightfold in the last six years. We still can't keep up with the demand even with a ~40% material cost/price increase in the last four years. Very much worth investing in (IANAIA); check the recent investment analyses. Wind energy's not going to blow away (haha). Oh, and a decent Class 1 turbine is designed to survive most hurricanes, too.

barchan, b1tr0t: what Artw said, basically. The recent computer model which showed a small local increase in temperatures from having a wind farm able to provide all the world's power pointed out (in an often-overlooked footnote) that the effect of the status quo was many times worse, and that the overall effect of the wind farm would be positive.
(and the bit about vibration and mach1; teh stuff and nonsense. Your average 15rpm, 80m diameter turbine's blade tip is only travelling at (pi * 80 * 15 / 60) / speed of sound = 0.18 mach.)

Brian B.: wouldn't say that wind turbines wipe out bats, as the general baseline understanding of bat populations is very poor. It's getting better with all the money the wind industry's throwing at it. It does seem that bats do really like wind turbines (maybe gnats are attracted to the blade vortices; who knows?), so careful preconstruction siting analysis is the order of the day. We also tried VAWTs; they didn't work very well, and I have my doubts over this one. Every couple of months, someone comes up with a pretty photoshop concept for one, it hits all the blogs, then promptly disappears. Bring me one with three years' operational data, and then we'll talk.

delmoi: it's really more careful siting that prevents bird kills. Bigger turbines help a little. I'm not really sure if there is (or was ever) anywhere that you could "get away from it all"; wherever you go, it's all there with you.

stavros: that's pretty much what the new Mitsubishi machines do. Folding the hub is hard (the stresses involved are mammoth), but yawing out the wind can be done.
posted by scruss at 5:02 PM on April 13, 2008

Bring me one with three years' operational data, and then we'll talk.

Humpback flippers?

posted by Brian B. at 5:47 PM on April 13, 2008

but yawing out the wind can be done.

Milhouse: Wow! Did you see that yaw control?
Homer: I have eyes, don't I?

...but seriously, thanks for the link & the debate. I learn more about the sustainable energy issue than I care to from MeFi, but appreciate it every time.

Unfounded theory: given the NIMBY mentality mentioned in the very first comment is actually rather prevalent among people (read: voters) in developed countries, wouldn't we expect wind farming to become yet another thing the West outsources to poorer places who can't afford aesthetic considerations, and so turn their plains/fields/rainforests into extensions of our electrical grid? So rather than Gulf of Mexico, we're talking Bay of Bengal.
posted by cosmonik at 6:34 PM on April 13, 2008

Ahh, Scruss, I interpreted b1tr0t's remark as an example of an event on a small level that ended up having a large effect on a massive scale, not as wind turbines leading to global warming, and I was agreeing. (b1tr0t, tell me if I'm wrong.) I don't think it will contribute to global warming but could affect the climatic system on the whole. I guess I didn't make that clear. Do you have the paper you mentioned? I'd like to read it.

and the bit about vibration and mach1; teh stuff and nonsense Phooey, you took away my most awesome wind turbine fact. Can you replace it with another? (I'm chagrined because I coulda calculated that out myself instead of being Ms. Gullible. That's what I get for talking to engineers in bars.)
posted by barchan at 7:36 PM on April 13, 2008

Brian B.: I've seen that turbine in the test centre on Prince Edward Island. The design adds a whole load of difficult to the manufacturing process. Maybe it'll work. Ask again in a few years. While it works for whales, the wind regime might be a whole different Reynolds number.

cosmonik: given that even the most "developed" countries don't have decent intra-regional grids, outsourcing generation and requiring intercontinental grids might be a bit of a stretch. Plus, who is to say that the developing country wouldn't get to put wind turbines there first? They tend to have higher power prices, so make more economic sense for local generation.

barchan: sorry, can't find the paper. Was about three years ago, came out of (I think) a university in Alberta. If I find it before this post closes, I'll link to it. Awesome wind turbine fact? Every time a modern wind turbine blade passes the tower, it generates enough power to run the average North American home for 15 minutes (or the average European home for 30 minutes, depressingly).

b1tr0t: yes, there's more than one way to do it; wind is part of a solution, but is currently the fastest and cheapest low-carbon solution. I'd debate the "energy use increasing" bit; we've got to get that usage down.
posted by scruss at 4:06 AM on April 14, 2008

I'm about 95% on board with offshore wind power, and anyone who complains that it will ruin a view, needs to understand that in a century, it will be the view you want to go and see. I don't foresee massive wind farms changing the weather patterns in any formative way. It's not like the wind is being removed, we are just putting something in it's way, and it doesn't add anything to the atmosphere in the way that coal burning does.

The 5% I have issue with is regarding migrating birds. If we could take steps to ensure that we minimize the chances that wind turbines will end up being birdy-blenders, I'll embrace the idea fully.
posted by quin at 10:40 AM on April 14, 2008

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