The US should prioritize offshore wind—but should Canada?

Offshore Wind Farm - Harald Petterson


May 29, 2014

Off the east coast of the United States, busy shipping lanes often occupy prime real estate for offshore wind projects. But, according to researchers at the University of Delaware, giving wind priority over shipping lanes could save billions.

If ships traveling between mid-Atlantic ports moved slightly further out at sea, new wind projects could be built closer to shore. This could reduce the cost of offshore projects and increase the potential for wind power to improve air quality, increase energy security and support domestic manufacturing.

Currently, ships make 1,500 trips per year between mid-Atlantic ports, traveling about 33 miles offshore. If that were 46 miles, hypothetical offshore wind projects could be deployed in better locations. Extra emissions from ships having to slightly longer trips would be easily offset by the clean energy generated.

The idea is simple and appealing. But there are other obstacles to viable offshore wind other than competition from shipping routes. The Kennedy family led a chorus of complaints against an offshore wind project near Martha’s Vineyard that would have affected the view.

The real challenge for wind, however, is less aesthetic than financial. When different sources of energy are compared, the levelized costs of new generation can very greatly. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar panels cost about $130 per megawatt hour. Onshore wind costs $80/MWh, and natural gas about $60/MWh. Offshore wind, in contrast, runs about $200/MWh.

Those figures are for new generation. They don't compare the costs of new capacity to existing capacity. And this is why offshore wind is unlikely to compete in Canada, which has two things in relative abundance: land, which offers space for installing solar panels or wind farms; and running water, for hydroelectric damns that already produce 61 percent of all the electricity generated in Canada.

This isn’t to say people haven’t thought about offshore wind in Canada. Some locations, such as the Great Lakes, hold real promise. And there could be other places where geography, electricity prices and community involvement could lead to successful wind projects. But shipping companies in Canada are probably not worried about running into wind farms just yet. With most of Canada’s cargo handled by a few key ports, the kind of shipping traffic seen on the mid-Atlantic coast is unlikely.

Photo Credit: Harald Pettersen