As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to make the news, as millions of litres prepare to make their way into the Loop, and from there into the Gulf Stream, another off-shore energy project is getting some serious attention. This energy project is expected to match the North Sea oil and gas fields in energy production, the equivalent of one billion barrels of oil a year. This is roughly double the production of the entire Gulf of Mexico oil fields.
And this energy source is not oil. It’s offshore wind farms. The energy production above is predicted for the British offshore wind sites, and doesn’t take into account the investments being made in Germany and Denmark to construct off-shore wind farms as well. These are deep-water projects, out of sight of land, and thus can avoid most of the controversy surrounding the aesthetics of wind turbines. The issue of aesthetics is slowing down many wind projects in the United States, where not one off-shore wind farm of any size or distance from shore has gone into operation, though one recently, and finally, been approved.
In the case of British off-shore power projects, it’s not just the wind enthusiasts who are extolling the virtues of wind power. North Sea oil companies are lending their expertise in off-shore industry and safety to the nascent wind power corporations.
Off-shore winds also blow more strongly, and steadily, than winds closer in to shore, or at the various inland locations that are currently the main sites for wind power projects.
Even taking that into account, wind power is too intermittent to generate most or all of a nation’s power demands. There either has to be a wide distribution of wind farms, some method of power storage, backup power generation, or some variety of consistent baseload generation. There is currently talk in Europe about creating a supergrid that would extend from Iceland to Italy, and work to balance out peak demands and intermittent power supplies.
Wind power, combined with hydroelectric power, however, is a very effective combination. Excess power from wind generation can be used for what is called pumped storage, pumping water up a hill to a storage reservoir, where it can be converted to power later.
One of the major environmental objections raised with respect to wind turbines is their effects on wildlife, in particular birds and bats. Placing turbines at least 10 kilometres off-shores eliminates the bat problem, and the new generation of large, slower-moving turbines are much less of a threat to birds. The effects of noise and vibrations from these off-shore turbines on sea-life, especially whales and dolphins, are unknown, and need to be investigated soon.
Wind power, in conjunction with a supergrid and other renewable power sources to balance the load, could be a major player in the future of energy production, not just for Europe, but for the entire world. It requires increased international cooperation and interdependence, but a greener future is going to require that in any case.