Blue Energy’s Big Future

Credit: Nicholas Doherty
Rampion Offshore Wind Farm in the U.K.

Offshore wind power would bring much-needed revenue to coastal communities, but the sector must mature quickly to keep up with the competition.  

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On May 11, the Biden administration approved the Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts, the first large-scale offshore wind turbine construction in the country’s history. The following day, the Oregon House passed Senate Bill 333, which instructed the Department of Energy to do a study on the benefits and barriers to hydrogen energy production in the state. 

Republican Brock Smith, who co-sponsored the legislation, noted the ability of hydrogen cells to store offshore wind energy as a reason for supporting the legislation. 

Support for renewable energy is nothing new for Oregon’s Legislature, but SB 333 had a quality uncommon to renewable energy legislation: support from both parties. Sustainability initiatives typically see opposition from Republicans. SB 333 passed unanimously. 

“As Oregon considers offshore wind development, there is the opportunity to use some of that clean power to make renewable hydrogen, which is a real economic development opportunity for coastal communities,” he said after the vote. 

Support for offshore wind energy and the industries that support it, such as hydrogen energy storage, have gained popularity on both sides of the aisle. During the Obama administration, state Republicans rebuffed a $47 million federal initiative to fund offshore wind projects. Since then, offshore wind projects have increased in Europe and Asia.

The success of these installations has demonstrated offshore wind’s potential. Even to climate change skeptics, the potential of offshore wind turbines to transform the state’s energy sector and bring economic growth to coastal communities is no longer being ignored. 

Because of the strong winds that blow across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, wind turbines placed off the coast generate a lot more electricity than onshore turbines. A 2018 report by the International Energy Agency and a 2019 report by the International Energy Agency found offshore wind had the potential to generate 420,000 terawatts of electricity, more than 18 times the electricity required to meet global consumption.

The most powerful coastal winds in the country are off the West Coast. For coastal communities like Coos Bay, offshore turbines have the potential to pump millions of dollars into the community. The cost of wind turbines has also decreased nearly 75% since 2014, making offshore wind increasingly viable. 

Despite the reduced cost and potential returns, the industry has remained sluggish due to difficulties with testing. Oregon’s continental shelf is relatively short: offshore wind projects would have to be floating in the ocean. Floating rigs pose more design challenges than ones affixed to the seabed. Creating the conditions of the open ocean in a testing facility is difficult.  

“Usually when you want to test a product, you scale it down to see if it works on a smaller level, then work your way up. But you can’t scale down wave and wind power in the same way,” says Bryson Robertson, director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center. The outfit, a consortium of Oregon State University, the University of Washington and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is dedicated to developing, testing and bringing offshore wind projects to the West Coast market. 

To help in the center’s mission, Oregon State University developed Pacwave,an ocean-based wave energy testing facility that will be located in the ocean about seven miles from shore near Newport.

The facility is also pre-permitted by the Department of Energy. Companies wishing to use Pacwave can do so without going through a lengthy permitting process typically required for outdoor-energy projects. 

“This is where you are going to test your device before you go full market. The goal is to get companies in, get them to test more and get them to market as quickly as possible,” says Robertson. “We made it so a company can just plug in instead of waiting decades for permitting to happen.”

Oregon’s blue-energy industry, a term used for the ocean-energy sector, has reason to scale quickly, and this is not only to limit the impacts of climate change. Offshore wind companies in Asia and the Europe have already set up shop. If Oregon does not develop its own offshore wind economy soon, the region risks missing out on federal funding.

National accelerators like the Testing & Expertise for Marine Energy Program already offer $16 million in grant money for project proposals. 

There is also a limited amount of coastal space available for turbines. If a homegrown blue-energy economy does not scale quickly, the state’s coastline and coastal communities could become clogged with out-of-state competition. 

“East Coast standards have acted as rocket fuel for the industry,” says Jason Busch, executive director of the Pacific Ocean Energy Trust, an organization that supports marine renewable energy. “This project in Massachusetts is going to break the logjam that’s been holding back the industry.”

To develop a blue-energy economy quickly, entrepreneurs will need to use a mix of capital from a variety of private and public sources. They will also have to work directly with state agencies, and one another.

“An idea we are borrowing from places in Europe and Singapore are joint innovation projects. A place where competitors can come together with utilities and regulators, designers and builders to create a standard before we bring an entire supply chain together,” says Joshua Berger, founder and CEO of Maritime Blue, a regional blue-energy business accelerator based in Washington. 

The connection that will be most critical to the success or failure of Oregon’s blue-energy industry is the one that must be forged between developers and the rural communities where these projects will take place. If local communities resist these projects, it could further hinder offshore wind development. 

In the past, offshore wind projects have faced opposition from residents, due to the turbines’ whirring sound, unsightly nature and potential negative impact on fishing and tourism. In 2001 the Cape Wind offshore project in Massachusetts was derailed by coastal homeowners, who filed more than a dozen lawsuits. The project failed as a result. 

For coastal tourism, offshore wind may be a blessing in disguise. A 2020 study by the University of Rhode Island found that offshore turbines do not deter tourists from visiting the area and actually increase overall tourism revenue. Visitors with prior knowledge of the turbines are frequently willing to pay more money to have a good view of them. 

Impacts on fishing and wildlife are less clear. For plankton and mollusks, the turbines act as artificial reefs, allowing marine populations to grow. However, the sound of the turbine construction often displaces marine life temporarily. 

While the biomass on the turbines can attract fish to the area, fishing boats are not able to access them. A 2020 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior found that while turbines’ impact on wildlife, the marine environment and tourism was manageable, the structures present a “major” challenge for fishing boats.

Turbine pylons have the potential to damage boats’ hulls if they get too close. If a ship does capsize, the turbines would prevent helicopter rescue. The turbines also reduce the effective range of fishing boats. 

A 2018 study from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab found residential support of wind turbines was generally high and increased when the community was compensated monetarily. While most residents did not mind the look of the turbines, people who viewed the planning process as unfair were most likely to say they opposed the projects. 

“The demand for power is more inland but the resources are off the coast. That means the jobs are going to be on the coast and the infrastructure is going to be on the coast. We have to have the conversation about how this industry is going to be a community driver,” says Berger.

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