West Coast Floating Wind Turbine Plan Gains Momentum, Funding

6/4/14Follow @bromano

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get the timing right in the marketplace. Right now, there’s little new demand for energy in the region, thanks to the lingering impact of the recession and standout energy efficiency efforts. But a window of opportunity will be opening.

“Where the market really is, is in replacing the retiring coal plants, and there are many of them,” Shimshak said.

The last remaining coal power plants in Oregon and Washington, with capacity of about 2.5 gigawatts, are already scheduled to shut down by 2025. Coal plants across the country are under competitive pressure from America’s newfound supplies of natural gas. New limits proposed this week by the Environmental Protection Administration on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, as well as state-level actions such as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent executive order aimed at reducing imports of electricity from out of state coal plants, are further ramping up the economic and political pressure on coal power.

If WindFloat Pacific stays on schedule—with installation as soon as 2017 under a best-case scenario—it could emerge as a proven technology just in time to fill some of the gap left by coal.

For that to happen, project proponents must allay any local environmental concerns. As the first of its kind, the project will face skepticism from state and federal fish and wildlife officials whose job it is to protect species and habitats, Copping said. “Getting wind in the water isn’t necessarily what they are going to be rewarded for,” she said.

The relative lack of sea life in the deep ocean waters unlocked by the floating platform technology means there are fewer environmental concerns to begin with, she said. “As you go away from shore anywhere in the oceans just about there’s less production of phytoplankton, zooplankton. There’s less food so the number of animals thins out,” Copping said.

There are some large ocean-going bird species, including the endangered short-tailed albatross, but these tend to soar below the height of wind turbine blades, she said.

Migrating whales could become tangled in mooring equipment and power cables connecting the WindFloats to each other and then down to the seafloor for transmission to shore. Regulators will also want to know if the noise and vibration from turbine operations could have an impact. But Principal Power says that the turbines will be anchored outside of whale migration routes. And the fact that the project doesn’t require pile driving (the noise from which can significantly affect marine mammals and is highly regulated) removes another major problem.

“We’ve done as much research as we can [given] the fact that there’s none in the water,” said Copping, who led development of a database of scientific papers and other information on environmental impacts of ocean renewable energy called Tethys, after the Greek sea goddess.”We think it’s a very low risk.”

And environmental regulators might also take comfort in knowing that the WindFloat can be completely removed from the ocean in a worst-case scenario. “That’s the ultimate mitigation no one wants to talk about,” Copping said.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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