US Offshore Wind Capacity Rated at 4,150 Gigawatts

If every potential offshore wind development site in the United States was dedicated to generate electricity from wind, the US could produce 4,250 gigawatts of wind-based energy each year. At least, that’s the estimate made in a report released today by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy. The authors of the report surveyed average wind speeds off the coasts of the lower forty-eight states and Hawaii. Their conclusion was the sustainable business of offshore wind has immense potential to re-power the country, at least in states with a coastline.

In fact 4,250 gigawatts is more than four times the amount of energy the United States uses each year—though conducting this energy to markets in the inner US poses sizeable technical challenges. The report also doesn’t take into account the fact that some areas where offshore wind conditions are ideal for generating electricity may be geologically unfit for turbines, or are already committed to other uses such as recreation and conservation of delicate marine ecosystems. Yet the overarching message is that offshore wind could take a big bite out of dependence on fossil fuels with their associated carbon emissions, if the amazing potential of this resource is utilized to its full extent.

Currently the United States produces no electricity from offshore wind at all, though the country’s first completed project is likely to be Cape Wind off the shore of Massachusetts. Earlier this year Cape Wind took a significant step forward when the project was approved by US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar; while it still has a few regulatory hurdles to overcome, supporters are hopeful construction on Cape Wind may finally begin soon. Once begun, the 420 megawatt project is expected to take about two years to build.

Worldwide Europe is unquestionably the global leader in offshore wind development. While the United States has spent the last several years hemming and hawing about tapping this immense source of energy, European nations like the UK, Denmark, Netherlands, and Sweden have each installed offshore farms capable of generating tens or hundreds of megawatts of electricity. The first large-scale offshore wind farm not located in Europe was completed by China earlier this year, and will generate 102 megawatts of electricity in the Shanghai energy. While a project that size is tiny compared to China’s soaring energy demand, this success bodes well for future offshore wind projects in that country.

So when will the United States get serious about powering some of its own most densely-populated areas, many of which are located near the coasts, with the sustainable business of offshore wind? Europe and China are both showing how offshore wind can be successfully harnessed, and this week’s new report shows the US unquestionably has vast offshore wind resources. Perhaps all that’s needed is a little old-fashioned American innovation to start an offshore wind juggernaut moving in the US at last.

Photo credit: Phil Hollman

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.