New England Energy Market … and Higher Ed … Look to Catch a Second Wind

By Dan Kuchma, David Cash, Fara Courtney, Jerome Hajjar, Eric Hines, Anthony Kirincich, Steven Lohrenz, James Manwell and Chris Niezrecki

In the coming decades, the U.S. will see large-scale offshore wind energy (OWE) development in which hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in building and operating OWE capabilities that are price-competitive with fossil fuel-based electricity. European market commitment, investment in infrastructure and R&D focused on cost reduction has enabled this competitiveness. New England is poised to lead the nation, thanks in part to: offshore winds that are up to twice as powerful as other regions in the U.S., high electricity demands and costs, thousands of megawatts in pending plant retirements, the creation in Massachusetts of the first commercial-scale offshore wind market, Rhode Island’s construction of the first American offshore wind farm, and Maine’s leadership in deepwater floating-turbine technologies. New England’s institutions of higher education, meanwhile, have a distinguished history as leaders in research related to wind energy, the ocean environment, public policy and infrastructure planning. Together, they are playing a critical role in the thought leadership, engineering innovation and workforce education that will ensure the success of our American offshore wind industry.

On Aug. 8, 2016, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed into law an energy bill that requires the state’s utilities to draw on at least 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind capacity in the coming years, enough to power a third of the homes in Massachusetts. One month later in September 2016, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center awarded the University of Massachusetts System plus Northeastern, Tufts and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution a capacity-building grant to become the Massachusetts Research Partnership in Offshore Wind (MRP). The MRP is currently formulating a national research agenda for offshore wind that can help guide the use of new and existing American research assets and expertise in the service of making American offshore wind an innovative, competitive and environmentally responsible enterprise. In an effort to ensure the national scope of this research agenda, the MRP has convened an initiative entitled the Partnership for Offshore Wind EneRgy (POWER-US), which is bringing to the table key national laboratories and institutions of higher education from every region of the U.S.

Caught in the Breeze

  • New England has a net electricity capacity of approximately 34 gigawatts (GW)
  • On any given day, we use approximately 17 GW of this power
  • By 2020, approximately 8 GW is planned for retirements, i.e. one half of our daily draw and one quarter of our total capacity
  • On May 31, 2017, the Brayton Point coal-fired power plant was retired—then the largest coal-fired power plant in New England
  • Massachusetts 2016 legislation requires the purchase of 1.6 GW of offshore wind and approximately 1.6 GW of hydropower
  • There is Massachusetts legislation pending that would raise the offshore wind number to 4 GW
  • Wind or no wind, we need to replace our electricity-generation capacity in the next several years. Renewables or not, coal is too expensive compared with natural gas and coal-fired power plants have had to close because they cannot compete in the electricity markets.

Without such an initiative, the U.S. role in developing its own OWE resource could very likely be marginalized by this European-based industry which has developed its technical know-how through decades of experience. The longer the U.S. waits to invest in this industry, the more difficult it will become for the U.S. to take control of its own energy destiny. When one considers, however, the speed at which the U.S. developed its land-based wind-energy production, and the depth to which the U.S. has advanced ocean observation and exploration, large-scale testing, and cyber-infrastructure, the potential for U.S. leadership in offshore wind is very real.

Significant American public investment in infrastructure, research and collaboration among the public, private and academic sectors will have a serious impact on the trajectory of American offshore wind. Such collaboration raises various issues affecting the public interest, including:

  • sources of employment and development of local industry and expertise
  • the impact of large-scale development on electrical grid operation and power markets
  • the policy and regulatory landscape that can ensure sustainable growth for the industry
  • how a given project will affect other offshore wind energy projects, including use of workforce and infrastructure, cumulative impacts and long-term costs
  • what happens to the investments in infrastructure beyond the 25-year operational period assumed for offshore wind projects
  • environmental impact other than to satisfy the regulations which are still in early stages of development
  • the development of a system-level assessment and risk-based approach using the most relevant available data
  • ensuring the right level of learning and technology assessment throughout OWE development
  • contributing to public sources of data and metadata on site characteristics such as seabed conditions and marine habitats, while respecting the proprietary nature of certain information
  • identifying and testing the breadth of new technologies, including remote sensing, longer-lasting materials, and new construction methods that could advance OWE
  • contributing to the development of the type of rich technical community that supports other types of similarly large investments and responsibilities
  • the cumulative impacts of large-scale development at the regional and national scale.

The value proposition of offshore wind to a region is highly dependent on the impact that OWE development can have on jobs and economic growth. The strategic development of local labor markets can transform coast communities and regional economies, as it already has across northern Europe. Due to the size of OWE turbines (as tall as Boston’s Hancock Tower) it is economical to design, manufacture, install and maintain them with local expertise, which is currently developing in the New England area. The U.S. is at the very early stages of preparing and educating a workforce to drive and support the OWE industry. We should begin to design education programs at all levels, from skilled labor educated at the community college level, to advanced degrees in specialized fields. This should include apprenticeships, training programs for existing workers and international exchanges, and span high school-voc-tech, two-year, four-year, certificate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs. In the U.S., high-quality jobs in the energy and infrastructure sector have the potential both to be local and to be resistant to automation.

Regional powers?

Regional cooperation across multiple states is essential to managing the complexity of OWE development and operation, the future size of this industry and the current state of any individual ports, manufacturing facilities, workforce and other resources. The electrical grid should be developed at a regional level and in consideration of how it may be expanded to bring future sources of OWE and other energy assets—including utility-scale storage—most economically and reliably to users.

A public investment in characterizing the resource and site conditions at potential wind energy sites reduces the risk for individual private developers and investors, and leads to lower-cost power-purchase agreements, as has been effectively demonstrated in Europe. It also advances our understanding of the ocean and marine environments, and enables improved decisions on the right level and location of OWE development. Site characterization includes making an assessment of external conditions (e.g. winds, waves, currents, extreme events), seabed conditions (e.g. geology, boulders, artifacts, soil composition, stiffness and strength), marine-region habitats (e.g. benthic ecosystems, fish, mammals, birds), and other human uses (e.g. ship and aircraft corridors, fisheries, coast guard, navy, recreational activities).

Since the U.S. does not have a supply chain for OWE development, there is an opportunity to do things differently from other nations, and in ways more suitable for our environment. The U.S. has pioneered and developed many technologies and industries that could produce innovative solutions for OWE. Innovations are required in many areas such as new and improved methods for site characterization, new sensors for measuring the performance of the full wind-turbine systems, including the condition and remaining design life of each component, new foundation concepts such as floating platforms and new operational strategies.

The development of an OWE supply chain and securing financing for projects is totally dependent on the commitment that government, industry and the public makes to purchasing OWE. For example, the energy ministers from Germany, Denmark and Belgium, along with 25 companies and NGOs, have just pledged to develop 60 gigawatts more of OWE by 2030. In Europe, the public investment in research and associated initiatives has been at about $3 billion. The level of public investment needed to support U.S. academia and agency initiatives in advancing offshore wind is very large, and ought to be considered as fundamental to creating American jobs at all levels ranging from hard-hat occupations to industry leadership.

In our opinion, the best research is inspired by real-world problems. In OWE, the methods used for characterizing a wind-energy resource area (wind, waves, currents, marine habitats, strength of seabed, etc.) are antiquated, too costly, insufficient and in need of significant advancement. Many of the technologies exist for making the needed advancement, such as advanced geophysical scanning techniques, sensors for monitoring aquatic life, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can deploy these technologies. Academia has a significant role to play in the evaluation and maturing of these technologies. There are also important areas for research with implications for the long-term sustainability of the industry. For example, the current design lifespan of 20 to 25 years that is used for offshore wind energy development is an artifact of land-based wind turbine machine technology and offshore oil and gas, and may not be appropriate for offshore wind for both economic reasons and for environmental stewardship. This is recognized by many components of the industry, and there is a significant opportunity for innovative strategies to greatly extend lifespans.

Considering the industry from the point of view of infrastructure, 25 years is a very short timeframe. One may consider replacing the machine parts in the Hoover Dam, but after 82 years, the structure continues to serve its purpose. The same goes for our buildings and bridges. Our codes may address a 50-year design life for buildings and a 75-year design life for bridges, but the actual lifespans of our built environment are much longer. The longevity and adaptive reuse of our New England building stock is a prime example of this. Why would someone plan to tear down an offshore wind farm so soon after the capital costs are paid in full and the cost of power reduces to operation and maintenance? No fossil fuel can compete with that over the long term. Currently, the lowest retail electricity prices in the U.S. can be found in states with abundant hydropower, such as Oregon..

The U.S. already has incredible assets to bring to the table including those specifically designed to support advancement in wind energy. A few examples include the laboratories, computational platforms and personnel at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and substantial OWE purpose-built test facilities such as the Wind Technology Testing Center in Boston, planned and designed by several authors of this piece. In addition to OWE test facilities, other existing laboratory testing facilities for earthquake and hurricane research, and many important studies funded by federal and state governments can play a critical role in advancing American OWE. An important next step is to determine how to operate these facilities/resources as a network and to fill in the gaps for creating a complete network. A few examples of gaps include offshore wind ocean testbeds for advancing site characterization, foundation testing facilities for testing structural elements below the waterline, data archival and management tools, and a framework for obtaining the data needed to advance design and analysis models.

Academia has an important role in shaping U.S. offshore wind energy development, not as an ivory tower but as an honest broker.

The role of the private sector is to help the market establish accurate and efficient pricing; the role of the public sector is to safeguard and advance the public interest; and the role of the academic sector is to assist and encourage both the private and public sectors to think deeply about the decisions they face and to help formulate the bases for such decisions through rigorous and disinterested scholarship.

Several universities across Europe have extensive research and educational activities jointly funded by industry and the public sector that are advancing new and improved methods of harnessing OWE. Discussions with European colleagues have pointed to missed opportunities in the early days of offshore wind development; the U.S. can learn from this experience and establish an effective framework for innovation from the beginning. Federal departments, agencies and administrations such as the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration can work together to bring in-depth expertise across a range of fields and fully advance U.S. OWE development and operation. The generation and transmission of electricity is a regional issue, but the advancement of research, infrastructure and education are also national issues that require clear and effective dialogues at both the regional and national levels. New England’s institutions of higher education are playing a critical role in leading and facilitating these dialogues. In the process, we are creating opportunities for our students to learn firsthand how the world of ideas can change the real world in which we live.

Daniel A. Kuchma is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts University.

David W. Cash is dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and former Massachusetts commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Public Utilities.

Fara Courtney is an independent consultant working with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Massachusetts Research Partnership for Offshore Wind to convene Massachusetts research institutions in support of a national research agenda for offshore wind.

Jerome F. Hajjar is the CDM Smith Professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University.

Eric M. Hines is a professor of the practice of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts University, and a principal at LeMessurier Consultants Inc., Structural Engineers.

Anthony Kirincich is an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Steven E. Lohrenz is dean of the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

James F. Manwell is a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and serves as the director of Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Christopher Niezrecki is professor and chair of mechanical engineering and serves as the director of the Center for Wind Energy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

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