Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Getting from Here to There, Where we Want To Be…

Recently, the Bard 1 project was fully installed, a sort of hollow victory against many odds for those who did this pretty amazing deed. This effort involved making and installing 80 x 5 MW wind turbines and placing them on custom made "Tripiles" 100 km (62 miles) off of the German coast in the North Sea, next to the "border" with the Netherlands in over 100 feet  of water. The project also needed to have its own 400 MW offshore substation installed, so that the offshore produced electricity can be conveyed to onshore customers, and a 400 MW underwater set of cables at ~ 150,000 volts is also not cheap. The entire project has cost around $US1.8 billion, and in many ways this is a prototype of perhaps 100 projects JUST IN GERMAN WATERS.

The company that built these turbines, the foundations for them and the substation platform as well as a ship to install these turbines was essentially an engineering design/construction outfit - they like to design and build stuff, and make money from these efforts. Unfortunately, they got financially ahead of themselves, and now they are for sale. They also did not fully grasp the difficulties in scheduling that goes with a project of this complexity. And let's face it, this is one of the foulest pieces of shallow ocean - weather wise - that exists in the world. Gale force winds and even worse are common, as are big tides and bigger waves with nasty attitudes and that water is cold, still. And all those unexploded munitions from WW1 and WW2 add to the grief with respect to installing foundations and the export electricity cables - drill or dig in the wrong spot and BOOM…. With construction projects on this scale, deviations from "The Plan" can add lots of money, as it can cost $200,000 a day to rent one of the boats needed for some of the operations, and you pay for them whether they are in use or tied up in port because the weather went from hellacious to worse. Getting off plan trashes the profitability something fierce… especially when delays compound into more delays...

Of course, bad weather (at least, the fast winds associated with "bad") is why this is such a great place to put wind turbines. Those times when it is not windy enough to spin the turbines (4 m/s or more at ~80 meters above the water surface) are pretty rare, and it may be that the number of "low wind" hours in a year is exceeded by the hours of "too fast" winds where the unit has to shut down because the winds are too fast (generally more than 25 m/s or 55 mph). Average wind speeds are near 10 m/s at 100 meters above the water surface. The power produced by offshore arrays in such windy patches of water tends to be remarkably predictable. Based on similar wind farms in that patch of water, the Bard project should average 200 MW for the next 25 years. It will replace 1.7 million tons/yr or so of CO2 pollutant from a plant burning lignite just for electricity. So while this was not quite a financial success, it is now the biggest offshore wind project in Germany, and the forerunner of many to come. Presently there is about $US 10 billion worth of these under construction in German waters, including Meerwind, Riffgat, Baltic 2, Global Tech 1, Nordsee Ost, Dan Tysk, Borkum 1 and Amrumbank (combined 2155 MW capacity)  and a bunch more in the pipeline. See http://www.4coffshore.com/windfarms/windfarms.aspx?windfarmid=DE02 for just the German list of projects, or here for the map of where these will be located: http://www.4coffshore.com/offshorewind/ (126 projects listed).

The offshore effort in Germany has been pretty slow until the Bard group started construction. But by now there is quite the marine construction infrastructure - boats doing surveying, cable laying, massive crane barges for installation of multi-kiloton substations on their support frames and all manner of barges, hotel ships and especially the jack-up barges and jack-up ships. A lot of the support systems for offshore gas and oil efforts (UK, Norway, Denmark for oil and gas, the Netherlands for gas) can be translated to offshore wind, and as the North Sea oil and gas fields deplete, it is expected that offshore wind will take over with respect to employment and business opportunities. Of course, this applies perfectly to the US….. But so far, we only have one wind farm offshore that is expected to begin construction this year - Cape Wind, off of Massachusetts.

Offshore wind is a resource that is perfectly attuned to the US Gulf and East Coast, as well as the Great Lakes (North Coast). The resource is there (offshore winds in the correct speed ranges) as are the many tens of thousands of square mails of shallow waters near coast areas. This could supply a huge chunk of the electricity now consumed in these regions, something very complimentary to the wind resources in the Northeast/Appalachians as well as in the windier parts of the more eastern parts of the Great Plains. But, it IS more expensive to make electricity from offshore wind farms than onshore ones, especially since a lot of the benefits that come from a more dependable wind resource are not easily translated into money.

Onshore winds in Germany range from OK (especially near the northern coastal areas/flat lands near the German-Danish and German-Dutch borders) to pretty sad in the interior/southern heavily forested regions like Bavaria (although winds on hilltops are also OK). This is why there is a large push to Low Wind Speed Turbines (where the "power ratio" - ratio of the swept rotor area to generator capacity - is between 4 to 5 m^2 per kw) put onto very tall (by US standards) of between 135 to 150 meters. These towers must use concrete for all or at least half of the tower height, since steel gets too expensive much above 100 meters in height and it tends to be too flexible. However, in the small patch of North Sea waters that is now deemed Germany's, winds average from great to exceptional, while the winds in Germany's Baltic Sea territory are also very respectable (about 1 to 2 m/s less than the 10 m/s of the North Sea). But since Germany has 85 million people and lots of industry, it is the North Sea that has grabbed the attention of those concerned with providing the country with sufficient electricity. They are also trying hard to avoid building additional pumped hydroelectric energy storage systems, preferring instead to "grid integrate" with their neighbors, though in the process, they also trash the pricing systems of neighbors such as Poland and the Czech Republic. And due to Austerity economic policies, Germany is not well liked in a lot of Europe these days (actually, often quite hated); the ruination of the electricity pricing systems just adds fuel to the fire, so to speak…

Of course, when the "wind penetration" (percentage of wind sourced electricity sent into the grid) is small, additional wind based electricity added to is easy to accommodate. The same goes for solar PV, though that is significantly intermittent in Germany (about 40% of all days, and barely present in the September to March period). But since Germany has invested close to $US 130 BILLION in PV systems (32.6 GW as of the end of 2012 - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Germany) this is no longer the case. In some instances, PV output can peak at near 25 GW, but then drop off significantly after 3 pm, and that changeover is typically facilitated by coal and gas plants (nukes are useless at supplying variable electricity - they tend to be either on or off). PV now supplies about 4.5% of Germany's electricity from over 1.3 million PV facilities (about 25 kw capacity average). There are plenty of energy storage possibilities via pumped hydro in that country, notably in the south (Alps) and southwest (Alsace-Lorraine), but it will cost money to build these, and these systems are net consumers of electricity. But maybe that is the cost of civilization in the 21st century…. However,  offshore wind barely has the intermittence problem - especially if arrays are distributed across the North Sea and also the Baltic Sea, and besides, it tends to be less expensive than PV sourced electricity…..

So, America, are we going to join the 21st century or just moan and groan about how it will cost money as well as cause actual human beings to get employed, and in skilled manufacturing and construction tasks, too. Oh dear, we can't have that, because that might be good for the economy, and Republicans just don't want anything to do with that right now. Besides, a bad economy is supposed to be President Obama's fault, which then creates the "demand" for a bad economy  to actually occur in the current last few years of the Obama Administration. But that's it for usefulness as far as demand in the economic sense is concerned for a lot of Republicans, and they are very angry that the economy has STILL not tanked into Recession, especially since they have worked SO hard to achieve one…..

In NY State, we actually share the German renewable energy resource "problem". The best onshore winds in the US are in mostly deserted states like the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, getting that electricity to NY is very pricey, and that just exports money to places that don't seem to buy much from NY State. There is a very decent offshore resource to the south and east of Long Island, and pretty good resources in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. And there is lots of pumped hydroelectric energy storage potential in NY such as near Lake Champlain and in the Finger Lakes/hills next to the Hudson River. And most of the required technology is already available. In fact, NY State could buy up the Bard Corporation (via NYPA) and move the manufacturing to NY State. Or maybe some of NY's more than 250 BILLIONAIRES could use up some spare coinage and buy that company and bring it to NY…. Then offshore wind units could be mass produced like the Liberty Ships were in WW2 and installed in our waters, supplementing onshore wind efforts. 

Of course, if you want the lowest cost electricity possible from wind, then the installed units would need to be OWNED by the state. This is because money for the turbines and their installation can be had via municipal/state bond sales for about half of the cost of that from private megabanks/other wealthy entities, and the capital cost is THE dominant cost factor for wind based electricity and especially offshore wind.

Of course, NYPA (= NY State) was there for nukes (FitzPatric and Indian Point 3), hydropower and even quite a few fossil fueled generation facilities (such as the 500 MW Poletti plat in Queens - see http://www.nypa.gov/facilities/ccp/default.htm). However, when it comes to NY State ownership of wind farms that could produce electricity for less prices (lower money cost, non-taxes, no need to make a profit) - nada is the word. How uncivilized and backwards - and also done at the instructions of NY's Governors, no less. Well, if you need a good reason for why NY State is unable to meet its very mediocre Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for either 2013 OR 2015, that is a big part of the problem. Of course, then there is the still lingering infatuation with a Casino based pricing system for electricity (NYISO), which may be appropriate for natural gas sourced electricity but is certainly MOST inappropriate for wind sourced electricity. And if state ownership of wind generation (and lots of GW's worth, not the chump change of the ~ 1.6 GW that has been installed, and seemingly at great pain) is so undesired, then the state and the people in it will have to buck up, grow some courage and pay more for electricity than would be the case with NYPA and LIPA owned facilities. It's a pretty simple situation - do you want to pay more for electricity so that ideological purity with respect to "free enterprise" capitalism is maintained? If so, then pay more, and do long term PPA's with private wind farm developers… or pay even more to keep the Casino pricing variant with all of it's attendant valueless-added aspects…

And so, we are 12 years and counting towards the 13th into the third millennia since some distant ancestors declared a  "0" year. We have epic depletion of oil, a nasty fracking habit needed to go after the dregs of the once abundant and easy to get at methane reserves in North America, and a really bad CO2 (and leaking methane) problem called Global Warming that is making the weather go bonkers in so many ways (and this is a trend that is just revving up and no where near maxed out yet). And we have the lowest cost routes to making and storing renewable energy on the scale to completely power up NY - wind turbines and pumped hydro - in essence unavailable to us, like an insidious tease for the few of us who seem to take the time to figure out a better way to power up our state and our country. Is that what the 21st century is supposed to be - just a big tease of doing the right thing, while a path of ruin and destitution is chosen because in comports to prevailing monopoly capitalism/neoliberalism, and what passes for The American Way? Better make that The Amerikan Way, the one where ignorance about the effects of using the atmosphere as a trash disposal unit (of CO2 pollutant) and also where nasty reigns supreme. Of course, we don't HAVE to choose the worst case scenarios for our future (there are so many competing dystopias to choose from…). We could do the equivalent of growing a courageous streak, and choose to make electricity at an affordable price AND in a way that makes lots of jobs in NY State AND which doesn't trash our portion of the planetary climate control system…

But then, it's the 21st century, and we seem to not be able to do everything that we want ("Dialing for Dollars" still has not found me…), but we do seem to be able to do a lot of things. And in effect, we choose to not do a lot of things that will make the world a better place and do things that maximize the probability of climate hell on earth (an ecological version of The Rapture?). And as a result, the 21st century is going to be one with a really bad attitude if we don't mend our pretty much describable as evil ways…. and do it soon, too.

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