The future of offshore wind energy in the US
Offshore wind is gaining momentum in the US due to technology advances and increasing public and private support for alternative energy. In this post, we talk with Fabio Fracaroli, Senior Director, Renewable Segment North America at ABB Power Grids about recent trends in the sector, the challenges, where improvements can be made and other factors affecting the sector.
What are your thoughts on the current outlook for the US offshore wind sector?
Generally speaking, the outlook is promising and positive. There is no doubt that the current technological advancements, along with public and governmental support, make offshore wind a viable and competitive energy source.
Another important and supportive aspect is the location of the power generation, which is relatively close to population centers. That usually isn’t the case with onshore wind and solar power generation. In the case of offshore wind, the proximity to large power-consuming areas creates an ideal combination of factors including lower transmission costs, an assured market for the generated power and the ability to utilize the existing distribution network.
In terms of technology, larger and more powerful turbines, combined with efficient and reliable transmission to the shore, position offshore wind competitively from a cost standpoint when compared to traditional, fuel-based power generation.
The increasing support of a greener agenda on the consumer side is also a major contributing factor for a positive outlook. More than ever, corporations and governments are recognizing the consumer preference for a carbon-free society. This translates into a demand for renewable energy from utilities and large companies, and figures into the political agenda for current and future administrations.
Still, despite an optimistic combination of factors and a supportive strategy, there are some challenges to overcome.
What are the biggest challenges the US offshore wind sector is currently facing?
The offshore wind industry is still young in the US, and therefore is still in a bit of a learning curve. From a complex legislative and state regulatory landscape to a relatively scarce supply chain in terms of material and qualified workers there is still quite a bit of work to be done.
Typically, the planning and permitting processes in offshore wind are relatively lengthy and require the participation of a large number of stakeholders. Being a relatively new and unknown industry in US, initial challenges are arising with local communities and organizations that want to make sure proposed wind farms would not negatively affect their environments, businesses and lifestyles.
For instance, environmental organizations would like to ensure that animal habitats are intact, fisheries would like to secure business continuity and local communities want to protect their shores where landing points are being planned. Developers of offshore wind projects and their suppliers must ensure that projects stakeholders and their interests are considered, providing plans to minimize risks and detailed responses to the various concerns that are relevant for those groups.
On the governmental side, policies and incentives are being implemented, but strategies must be put in place that can help ensure execution independent of political transitions or leadership changes.
Last, but not least, the supply chain is still being created, and at the moment it is dependent on more experienced, multi-national players. Companies are being established locally, jobs are being created and a lot of knowhow is available within large corporations with International roots, but a national supply chain must also exist to ensure resources will be available when and where they are needed.
Where do enhancements need to be made to the US grid as it relates to offshore wind?
Wind farms currently planned or under development will bring several additional gigawatts to an existing grid that is to a certain degree old and congested. The placement of the connection points where the incoming power will connect to the existing onshore grid will need to be carefully planned. This point and surrounding network are possibly the most critical locations that will require enhancement.
The topology of the area and the technology chosen is critical in several respects: physical space needs, connectivity to existing lines and substations, power quality and reliability, visual aspect and so on. Once the optimum location for the incoming power ‘landing point’ or onshore substation is determined, upgrades must be performed in the surrounding network. That network must be carefully evaluated to ensure it will be able to handle not only a substantial increase in power, but also the unique characteristic of the power being generated, which likely differs substantially from existing sources.
What are the biggest technical challenges associated with connecting offshore wind to the grid?
Several aspects must be reviewed and understood when discussing challenges in offshore wind connection. Probably the most fundamental and primary challenge to be addressed is deciding what power transmission type to use for the connection from offshore to onshore - High Voltage AC or High Voltage DC.
Each technology presents particular advantages and disadvantages depending on project characteristics such as the amount of power generated, the distance from shore, available connection points, existing grid technologies and other considerations. A detailed understanding of the available options, based on studies evaluating how those options will operate when connected to the existing grid is a major challenge for most projects.
Another key concern is that, historically, existing grids were designed and operated to accommodate a different type of generation, which in most cases is more centralized and has different technical characteristics. Renewable generation, such as solar and wind, are intermittent resources that are displacing conventional, continuous generation technologies like coal or gas. This fact reinforces the needs for proper engineering system design and investments to ensure wind energy is connected without jeopardizing grid reliability or power quality.
Such challenges imply that the grid might not be suitable to simply receive the newly generated power or that adaptations must be made to ensure constant and reliable transmission to demand centers. Such adaptations could, in extreme cases, include construction of new networks. Usually, however, investments in power quality or grid stability will suffice when carefully planned and executed. Understanding the operation of offshore wind systems under normal and contingency conditions, and how that will impact connections, must also be evaluated.
One final point that is equally important is the need to address the various interconnection aspects driven by grid codes. The North American Reliability Corporation (NERC), Regional Transmissions Owner (RTO) or Independent System Operation (ISO) are some examples of grid codes that must understood and observed for each project, both in terms of development and execution.
How big of a game changer could renewable energy resource zones be?
Definitely a big one. It was reported recently that renewable energy consumption surpassed coal for the first time in American history (more than 130 years). There is clearly a trend toward the increasing participation of renewable energy in the power generation mix. The economics of renewable energy sources are fundamentally favorable as compared to other energy sources. The technology has evolved dramatically in the past decade and specialists estimate that between 2009 and 2019 there has been an increase in generation productivity of approximately 70%. Better and more efficient materials, reliable generation and transmission, and improved production forecasting and planning are all positioning renewable sources as a competitive alternative.
As previously mentioned, the support from consumers, corporations and governments, aligned with the general competitiveness of these technologies, is ensuring that renewable energy will continue to change the game. A carbon-free agenda is a priority in most societies and the vast majority of corporations and political organizations.
Considering the challenges faced by industries like metals, mining, and oil and gas, we can also anticipate that the renewable sector will also play a fundamental role in the Post-COVID-19 economic recovery. It is estimated that the US offshore wind sector alone has the potential to generate more than 83,000 jobs in the next few years – certainly an industry worth paying attention to.