When turbines start spinning at the first U.S. offshore wind farm near Rhode Island later this year, some energy developers will already be eyeing a bigger prize.
There’s a steadier, harder wind blowing off the California coast. Those reliable Pacific gusts could yield nearly a terawatt of electricity, 13 times the capacity of all the wind turbines now installed on land in the U.S. — without consuming real estate or blocking anyone’s views.
But Mother Nature isn’t going to make it easy. The continental shelf plunges fast and deep off the West Coast, making it impossible to install conventional turbines into a seabed hundreds of feet under water. Some developers think they’ve found the solution: harnessing this renewable resource with technology borrowed from the fossil-fuel industry to keep turbines afloat.
“We can’t fix turbines into the ocean floor out there,” said Nancy Sopko, manager of advocacy and federal legislative affairs for the American Wind Energy Association. “To tap into that great offshore wind potential, we’re going to need these floating structures.”
The Department of Energy is expected to decide next month whether to award some $40 million to as many as five floating wind projects that have already won previous funding. And the Interior Department will soon ask if there’s commercial interest in leasing Pacific waters near California and Hawaii — a critical step toward future floating wind projects there.
The technology is in its early days. Globally, there are just 15.33 megawatts of floating wind capacity, mostly coming from a handful of pilot projects involving one or two turbines, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That’s less than a percent of the total 11.6 gigawatts of capacity from traditional wind projects in waters around the world.