New buoys test wind speeds offshore US

US DOE operated by Pacific Northwest National LaboratoryTwo massive, 20,000-pound buoys decked out with the latest in meteorological and oceanographic equipment will enable more accurate predictions of the power-producing potential of winds that blow off US shores.

The bright yellow buoys — each worth about US$1.2 million — are being commissioned by the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Washington state’s Sequim Bay. Starting in November, they will deploy for up to a year at two offshore wind demonstration projects: One near Coos Bay, Oregon, and another near Virginia Beach, Virginia.

At right: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory staff conduct tests in Sequim Bay, Washington, while aboard one of two new research buoys being commissioned to more accurately predict offshore wind’s power-producing potential. Image courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“We know offshore winds are powerful, but these buoys will allow us to better understand exactly how strong they really are at the heights of wind turbines,” said PNNL atmospheric scientist Will Shaw. “Data provided by the buoys will give us a much clearer picture of how much power can be generated at specific sites along the American coastline – and enable us to generate that clean, renewable power sooner.”

Offshore wind is a new frontier for US renewable energy developers. There’s tremendous power-producing potential, but limited information is available about ocean-based wind resources. DoE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy purchased the buoys to improve offshore turbine performance in the near term and reduce barriers to private-sector investment in large-scale offshore wind energy development in the long term. AXYS Technologies Inc. manufactured the buoys in Sydney, British Columbia.

One report estimated the US could power nearly 17 million homes by generating more than 54Gw of offshore wind energy, but there needs to be more information. Instruments have long measured wind speeds at the surface, but the blade tips of offshore wind turbines can reach up to 600ft above the surface, where winds can behave very differently.

US DOE buoy instruments - PNNLThe buoys carry a bevy of advanced instruments, including devices called lidar, which is short for light detection and ranging, to measure wind speed and direction at multiple heights above the ocean. Other onboard instruments will record air and sea surface temperature, barometric pressure, relative humidity, wave height and period, and water conductivity. Researchers will also measure subsurface ocean currents with acoustic Doppler sensors.

At right: Meteorological instruments aboard the offshore wind power research buoys PNNL is commissioning include anemometers (small white spinning cups on towers) and lidar (large white ball at bottom), among many others. These instruments will provide data that will help improve offshore turbine performance and reduce barriers to investment in large-scale offshore wind energy development. Image courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

All of these measurements will help scientists and developers better understand air-sea interactions and their impact on how much wind energy a turbine could capture at particular offshore sites. The data will also help validate the wind predictions derived from computer models, which have thus far relied on extremely limited real-world information.

PNNL is operating and managing the buoys for DoE. Researchers working from PNNL’s Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, WA, will conduct initial tests on the custom-made buoys near the Dungeness Spit along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a channel of water between Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula and British Columbia’s Vancouver island. Afterward, the buoys will work on project sites in Oregon and Virginia.

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4300 staff and has an annual budget of about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

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