Windmills in mind

March 3, 2010

As the offshore oil & gas industry grew in its infancy away from the coast, operators applied their experience from one platform to the next. The marine renewables industry is beginning a similar growth pattern. US alternative energy enthusiasts descended on Houston last month to discuss the opportunities and possibilities presented by this emerging industry. Jennifer Pallanich listened in.

A number of groups are working to bring offshore wind farms to the US, hoping to dot the country’s coastline with the kind of structures now being installed in large numbers offshore Europe. Speaker after speaker at February’s Gulf-to-Gulf Ocean Energy conference in Houston talked about the allure of harnessing offshore wind energy to power not only coastal grids but also to create a transport fuel that wouldn’t rely on drilling.

‘The nice thing about offshore wind is it doesn’t spill, and it doesn’t deplete,’ said Matt Simmons, founder and chairman of the Ocean Energy Institute, president of Simmons & Co Intl, and well-known for his speeches about rusted and rusting infrastructure in the oil & gas industry.

Under Simmons’ vision for the DeepCwind project in the Gulf of Maine – sometimes referred to as Pickens Plan Plus – up to three prototypes are expected to go in the water next year.

‘We are really blessed with Cat 6 and Cat 7 winds’ in the Gulf of Maine, said Robert West, managing director of the Ocean Energy Institute, which Simmons founded to serve as a think-tank and venture capital fund to address challenges of US offshore renewable energy.

The DeepCwind project will see wind turbines installed 20 miles offshore in about 60m of water depth. For now, Simmons considers this depth to be ‘deepwater’ for the offshore wind industry. ‘We want the water depth because of the better platform designs we can deploy,’ he said. A side benefit is the heavier wind at further distances from shore. Just 10% more wind, he said, translates into 25% more energy.

While the Gulf of Maine project would definitely produce kilowatts, Simmons said, the idea is to also produce ammonia and desalinated water at each platform. John Holbrook, executive director of the Ammonia Fuel Network, said ammonia – NH3 – can be made practically from water, air and renewable energy, in a manner more efficient than electrolysis ammonia synthesis. ‘Ammonia can be made cost competitive with fossil fuels,’ Holbrook said. The draws for using ammonia as a transport fuel include an existing infrastructure system and the chemical’s widespread use.

Globally, 130 million tons of NH3 are produced annually, and the US uses 20 million tons/year, with most of that dedicated to food production. There are no corrosion problems with ammonia, Holbrook said.

Ammonia is no stranger to the world of transport fuels. Belgium used it in its buses in the 1940s, it fueled an X-15 rocket plane in the 1960s, and a 9.3L V8 hotrod built last year relied on NH3. A gallon of ammonia has about half the energy of a gallon of diesel.

And perhaps most important for Simmons’ larger view of the project, ammonia doesn’t release carbons during combustion; the combustion creates water and nitrogen. Done right, Holbrook noted, that water will be potable. According to Simmons, the process has ‘finally cracked the nut of how to solve the problem of our water scarcity’. This desalination will provide drinking water and may draw interest from the Middle East, the region of the world with the largest amount of desalinated water, Simmons added.

Ed Horton, creator of the spar, said designing offshore platforms for wind turbines requires ‘thinking smaller instead of bigger’. He stressed the importance of not confusing the needs of oil & gas platforms with the needs of wind farms. ‘This is an entirely different project than the type I’m used to; 700 tons to me is the lightest platform we’ve ever had,’ he said. The best approach, he added, is to create one platform that works and then optimize it.

West noted concerns about the DeepCWind project have revolved around lobsters and fishing, the endangered Right Whales and views at Acadia National Park. The view, coupled with Nimby worries, can seem a huge hurdle, speakers said. But, said George Baker, CEO of Fox Islands Wind: ‘If communities control and benefit from wind projects, they love having it in their backyards.’ Baker, a Harvard Business School professor on a leave of absence, is on the Ocean Energy Institute board. The Fox Islands project is onshore.

‘The fishing issue is a real one. The fisherman believe that the bottom is theirs, and you put anything on that bottom at your peril,’ Baker said, adding it is possible to work out those issues.

It’s not just the creatures of the waters that raise concerns. Texas land commissioner Jerry Patterson noted ‘the bird people’ worry that migrating birds will fall prey to the wind turbines’ rotating blades. ‘It’s not a problem that cannot be addressed.’ According to Patterson, migrating birds fly at higher altitudes than the tallest offshore wind structures – unless there is fog. ‘But if you’ve got fog, you’ve got no wind,’ he added.

While offshore wind presents some challenges – such as build cost and exposure to hurricanes – it also offers the benefit of being close to populations that require energy. ‘If you generate it eight miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, you’re eight miles away from the grid,’ Patterson said.

Texas was among the leaders in signing US offshore wind leases. The state signed the first, closely resembling an oil & gas lease, for an area seven miles off the Texas coast, that Patterson said.

‘We’re going to create an all-new industry,’ Simmons said, noting the advent of this industry could be ‘an enormous boon for Houston, and a boon for Maine’. OE

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