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Offshore Wind Energy

The first offshore wind project was


installed off the coast of Denmark in 1991.
Since that time, commercial-scale offshore
wind facilities have been operating in
shallow waters around the world, mostly
in Europe. With the U.S. Department of
the Interiors Smart from the Start
initiative, wind power projects will soon
be built offshore the United States. Newer
turbine and foundation technologies are
being developed so that wind power
projects can be built in deeper waters
further offshore.
Wind energy has been utilized by humans for
more than two thousand years. For example,
windmills were often used by farmers and
ranchers for pumping water or grinding grain. In
modern times, wind energy is mainly used to
generate electricity, primarily through the use
of wind turbines. All wind turbines operate in
the same basic manner. As the wind blows, it
flows over the airfoil-shaped blades of wind
turbines, causing the turbine blades to spin.
The blades are connected to a drive shaft that turns an electric generator to produce
electricity. The newest wind turbines are highly technologically advanced, and include a
number of engineering and mechanical innovations to help maximize efficiency and
increase the production of electricity.
Offshore Wind Energy Resources
Offshore wind turbines are being used by a number of countries to harness the energy of
strong, consistent winds that are found over the oceans. In the United States, 53% of the
nations population lives in coastal areas, where energy costs and demands are high and
land-based renewable energy resources are often limited. Abundant offshore wind
resources have the potential to supply immense quantities of renewable energy to major
U.S. coastal cities, such as New York City and Boston.
Offshore winds tend to blow harder and more uniformly than on land. The potential
energy produced from wind is directly proportional to the cube of the wind speed. As a
result, increased wind speeds of only a few miles per hour can produce a significantly
larger amount of electricity. For instance, a turbine at a site with an average wind speed
of 16 mph would produce 50% more electricity than at a site with the same turbine and
average wind speeds of 14 mph. This is one reason that developers are interested in
pursuing offshore wind energy resources. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) provides
a number of maps showing average wind speed data through its Resource Assessment
& Characterization page and through National Renewable Energy Laboratorys
(NREL) MapSearch.

United States wind speeds at 80m hub height


(Credit: NREL)

Wind resource potential is typically given in gigawatts (GW), and 1 GW of wind power will
supply between 225,000 to 300,000 average U.S. homes with power annually. In a July
2012 Technical Report, NREL estimates a gross wind power resource of 4,223 GW off
the coast of the United States. That is roughly four times the generating capacity of the
current U.S. electric grid. Even if only a fraction of that potential is developed, clearly
there is enough offshore wind resource to power a substantial portion of our nations
energy needs.
Wind speeds off the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico are lower than wind speeds
off the Pacific Coast. However, the presence of shallower waters in the Atlantic makes
development more attractive and economical for now. Hawaii has the highest estimated
potential, accounting for roughly 17% of the entire estimated U.S. offshore wind resource.
For additional information on NRELs assessment of offshore wind power resource, see
the publication Assessment of Offshore Wind Energy Resources for the United
States. Maps of renewable energy potential for multiple technologies, or state-by-state
analyses, can be downloaded here.

United States offshore wind resource by region and depth


(Credit: NREL)

Commercial Offshore Wind Energy Generation

Many countries, including the United States, have coastal areas with high wind resource
potential. Worldwide there are 4.45 GW of offshore wind energy installed, with another
4.72 GW under construction and an additional 30.44 GW approved. Over 50 projects are
operational in coastal waters of countries such as Denmark, the United Kingdom,
Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, China, South Korea, Belgium, Sweden, Italy,
Portugal, and others. A list of offshore wind power projects can be downloaded at The
Wind Power website, a worldwide database about wind turbines and wind power
facilities. While the United States does not have any operational projects yet, there are
thousands of megawatts (MW) in the planning stages, mostly in the Northeast and MidAtlantic regions. Projects are also being considered along the Great Lakes, the Gulf of
Mexico, and the Pacific Coast.

Nysted Wind Facility, 8-12 miles offshore Denmark, the


North Sea. Wind turbines are arranged to take advantage
of the prevailing wind conditions at the project site, and
turbine spacing is carefully designed to maximize cost
efficiency and power production.
(Credit:NREL)

Commercial-scale offshore wind facilities are similar to onshore wind facilities. The wind
turbine generators used in offshore environments include modifications to prevent
corrosion, and their foundations must be designed to withstand the harsh environment of
the ocean, including storm waves, hurricane-force winds, and even ice flows. Roughly
90% of the U.S. OCS wind energy resource occurs in waters that are too deep for current
turbine technology. Engineers are working on new technologies, such as innovative
foundations and floating wind turbines, that will transition wind power development into
the harsher conditions associated with deeper waters.

Progression of
expected wind turbine
evolution to deeper
water.
(Credit: NREL)

Floating wind turbine


platform
configurations, one
designed by NREL
and a Dutch TriFloater concept.
(Credit: NREL)

Offshore Wind Energy Technology


The engineering and design of offshore wind facilities depends on site-specific conditions,
particularly water depth, geology of the seabed, and wave loading. In shallow
areas, monopiles are the preferable foundation type. A steel pile is driven into the
seabed, supporting the tower and nacelle. The nacelle is a shell that encloses the

gearbox, generator, and blade hub (generally a three-bladed rotor connected through the
drive train to the generator) and the remaining electronic components. Once the turbine
is operational, wind sensors connected to a yaw drive system turn the nacelle to face into
the wind, thereby maximizing the amount of electricity produced.
For more information about wind turbine technology, see NRELs Wind Energy Basics:
How Wind Turbines Work.

Wind Turbine Nacelle Schematic (Credit: NREL)

Todays offshore turbines have technical modifications and substantial system upgrades
for adaptation to the marine environment. These modifications include strengthening the
tower to cope with loading forces from waves or ice flows, pressurizing nacelles to keep
corrosive sea spray from critical electrical components, and adding brightly colored
access platforms for navigation safety and maintenance access. Offshore turbines are
typically equipped with extensive corrosion protection, internal climate control systems,
high-grade exterior paint, and built-in service cranes. To minimize the expense of
everyday servicing, offshore turbines may have automatic greasing systems to lubricate
bearings and blades as well as heating and cooling systems to maintain gear oil
temperature within a specified range. Lightning protection systems help minimize the
risk of damage from lightning strikes that occur frequently in some offshore locations.
There are also navigation and aviation warning lights, regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard
and the FAA. Turbines and towers are typically painted light grey or off-white to help
them blend into the sky, reducing visual impacts from the shore. The lower section of the
support towers may be painted bright colors to increase navigational safety for passing
vessels.

The Repower 5M turbine, offshore Scotland, one


of the worlds largest wind turbines.
(5-MW, 126m tall, 45m depth)

To take advantage of the steadier winds, offshore turbines are also bigger than onshore
turbines and have an increased generation capacity. Offshore turbines generally have
nameplate capacities between 2 MW and 5 MW, with tower heights greater than 200 feet
and rotor diameters of 250 to 430 feet. The maximum height of the structure, at the very
tips of the blades, can easily approach 500 feet, and turbines even larger than 5 MW are
being designed and tested for future use.
While the tower, turbine, and blades of offshore turbines are generally similar to onshore
turbines, the substructure and foundation systems differ considerably. The most common
substructure type is the monopilea large steel tube with a diameter of up to 20 feet.
Monopiles are typically used in water depths ranging from 15 to 100 feet. The piles are
driven into the seabed at depths of 80 to 100 feet below the mud line, ensuring the
structure is stable. A transition piece protrudes above the waterline, which provides a
level flange to fasten the tower. In even shallower environments with firm seabed
substrates, gravity-based systems can be used, which avoids the need to use a large
pile-driving hammer. Tripods and jackets foundations have been deployed in areas where
the water depth starts to exceed the practical limit for monopiles.
Transport of Wind-Generated Energy
All of the power generated by the wind turbines needs to
be transmitted to shore and connected to the power grid.
Each turbine is connected to an electric service platform
(ESP) by a power cable. The ESP is typically located
somewhere within the turbine array, and it serves as a
common electrical collection point for all the wind turbines
and as a substation. In addition, ESPs can be outfitted to
function as a central service facility, and may include a
helicopter landing pad, communications station, crew
quarters, and emergency backup equipment. After
collecting the power from the wind turbines, high voltage
cables running from the ESP transmit the power to an
onshore substation, where the power is integrated into the An Electric Service Platform (ESP)
grid. The cables used for these projects are typically
for an offshore wind facility.
buried beneath the seabed, where they are safe from
damage caused by anchors or fishing gear and to reduce their exposure to the marine
environment. These types of cables are expensive, and are a major capital cost to the
developer. The amount of cable used depends on many factors, including how far
offshore the project is located, the spacing between turbines, the presence of obstacles
that require cables to be routed in certain directions, and other considerations.
Environmental Considerations

In 2007, the Bureau published the Final Programmatic


Environmental Impact Statement for Alternative
Energy Development and Production and Alternate
Use of Facilities on the Outer Continental Shelf. This
document examines the potential environmental impacts related
to renewable energy development on the OCS for each phase of
development (technology testing, site characterization,
construction, operation, and decommissioning). Actual proposals
will be evaluated in project-specific analyses under the National
Environmental Policy Act.
For More Information

Download the Technology White Paper on Wind Energy Potential on the


U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.

U.S. Department of Energys 2011 publication, A National Offshore Wind


Strategy: Creating and Offshore Wind Energy Industry in the United
States.