U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu appears set to sign a major agreement on developing new technology for offshore wind power with U.K. Energy Secretary Edward Davey. According to reports in the British media, the agreement will be signed during the Clean Energy Ministerial conference hosted by England’s Department of Energy and Climate Change in London this Wednesday and Thursday. Chu, who will be co-chairing the conference with Davey, joins 21 other energy ministers from leading clean tech countries around the globe.
If the reports are borne out, the new collaboration could mean a big boost for the domestic wind power industry all up and down the supply chain, as the U.S. has barely begun to tap into its enormous wind resources, both onshore and offshore.
Offshore wind power potential in the U.S.
The U.S. stands to gain enormous benefits from the new collaboration. According to a 2010 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the total potential capacity of offshore wind for the U.S. is about four times greater than its current electric capacity, but it has yet to be tapped.
There are no offshore wind turbines operating in the U.S. yet, though it is a global leader in installing wind turbines on land.
Benefits for the U.K. offshore wind industry
In contrast, the U.K. is already far along the road to developing its offshore wind resources. According to Davey the nation already has installed more offshore turbines than any other country, accounting for about one-third of Europe’s total offshore wind potential.
The hitch is that available sites for positioning wind turbines close to shore are rapidly being developed. In order to vault over its own leadership position, the U.K. will have to find new territory, which means tapping into wind resources located farther offshore.
Advantages of far (far) offshore wind turbines
Deepwater wind turbines have the advantage of greater efficiencies due to the availability of stronger, steadier winds. The remote sites also provide the potential for constructing massive, sprawling wind farms on a scale that would be difficult to realize closer to shore.
However, deepwater wind turbines present a new set of technological challenges, including how to anchor the turbine to the sea floor at greater depths.
Floating wind turbines
Building wind turbines on floating platforms is a concept that is emerging as a potential solution. The platform avoids the cost of building permanent foundations, and Davey notes that maintenance and repair expenses can be minimized, since the floating platform could be towed to a shore-connected dock as needed rather than transporting personnel and equipment out to sea.
According to the DECC, a floating wind turbine collaboration will serve as the showcase for the new Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and the U.K. The document covers a range of clean energy technologies but since both countries have floating wind demonstration projects in the pipeline, that will likely be among the first to come to fruition.
The U.K. already has a demonstration project in the works through its Energy Technologies Institute. That project is currently in the process of selecting a site and engaging participants, with the goal of producing a 5-7 megawatt floating wind turbine by 2016.
Federal funding for offshore wind power technology
The U.S. has to play a bit of catch-up, but the Obama Administration had the foresight to get itself into a good position just ahead of the conference with the March 1 announcement of a six-year, $180 million round of funding for four innovative offshore wind energy installations that will demonstrate the potential for lowering the cost of wind power through utility-scale planning.
The Department of Energy will also provide support for reducing associated expenses including grid connection, permitting and approval processes - though unfortunately it seems that at least one state legislature (okay, so Wisconsin) will not be of much assistance.
Also coming into play is a five-year, $41 million round of funding for offshore wind projects announced by the Department of Energy last fall, aimed at getting new technologies out of the lab and into the water more quickly, partly by helping to spur domestic manufacturing and other aspects of the wind industry supply chain.
The two latest funding rounds join a $24 million wind energy research program funded by the Recovery Act near the beginning of the Obama Administration in 2009. That funding went to three consortia headed by the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Maine and the University of Minneapolis to develop both onshore and offshore technologies, while establishing a long term academic platform for the development of career innovators in advanced wind power tech.
Wind power and global energy markets
The Clean Energy Ministerial Conference is the third such event hosted by the U.K. Other participants in this year’s conference are Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, European Commission, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and United Arab Emirates.
Secretary Chu’s appearance at the conference is part of a broader push by the Obama Administration to develop global alternative energy alliances and reduce the reliance of the U.S. on the petroleum market.
Aside from the wind power collaboration with the U.K., the U.S. has also just announced a major new alternative energy project that teams a consortium led by the University of Florida with research partners in India, and earlier this year the U.S. Navy began to engage in promoting biofuel production in Australia.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.