Wind Farms in the Ocean? Maybe Not

Published October 6, 2008

While we hear of the great potential of wind turbines at sea, the reality reminds us of the experience of every American rancher and farmer who was in business before 1940 and depended on windmills, which were high maintenance and unreliable at their best.

The offshore wind farms of Europe are a mess and getting worse. The of June 10 reports that the Lisa A, a key rig for an offshore Robins Rigg Wind Farm in the Irish Sea, has been out of commission since September 16, 2007 due to loss of support mechanisms for the undersea legs, and that stopped the work of completion of the wind farm.

Equipment shortages and rising costs are stalling the construction of many European offshore wind farms. The biggest sea-based wind park, called the London Array, is now in financial and operational trouble. Goeran Lundgren, director of the Vattenfall AB 640 megawatt wind farm in the Baltic Sea, is not optimistic about his project. He says, “I don’t think we’ll see any large-scale offshore parks until we’ve taken a few big development steps.” Shell has sold its share in the London Array, which is the largest European offshore wind farm.

The London Array was to be 341 turbines with a capacity of 341 to 682 megawatts, but that means an output of one-third that capacity, still much less than just one coal-fired electricity plant. A normal-sized coal plant is 1,000 megawatts and runs at 85 to 90 percent capacity all the time, three times that of the London Array output. The claim in the Bloomberg article that the array would generate 1,000 megawatts of energy, enough to supply a quarter of London’s homes, is quite optimistic or, more likely, wishful thinking, even if the turbines are rated for 2 megawatt capacity. A 2 megawatt turbine puts out one-third of that on average over a year; possibly slightly more in an offshore placement, but the wear and tear and maintenance of offshore turbines is a major detriment to that continuous output. The devil for energy production projections is in the details.

The price of offshore turbines rose to $3.4 million per megawatt in the past three years, and that means big trouble for offshore “wind parks” as the Europeans call them. A typical coal-fired electricity plant costs $1 to 2 billion American and has a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, but puts out 8,500 megawatts per average hour over a year. Turbine costs for a similar capacity would be 3,000 turbines of 1 megawatt capacity at $1 million American each, or 1,500 of the more expensive 2 megawatt spinners. That means a wind farm turbine cost of about $3 billion without lines and construction. A 1,000 megawatt capacity 500- to 1,000-turbine wind farm would put out only 300 mgw per hour during the good times, so to compete with a 1,000 mgw coal plant, the wind farm would have to have 3,000 turbines operating well, a capitol expense of $3 billion for turbines alone plus construction. The numbers for wind farms don’t work and result in very expensive and unreliable electrical generation, just like they don’t work for solar, which is incredibly capital-expensive, dependent on sunshine, and high maintenance.

Offshore is a niche, says Ditliv Engel, chief executive of the company Vestas, which makes sea-based turbines. “Looking ahead, it will basically be onshore.” Onshore in densely populated Europe is not likely, so wind farms are dead for Europe. In the meantime, the Lisa A mentioned above is languishing in the Irish Sea, the key for a 180 mgw project, the Robbins Rigg wind farm, but 180 mgw is hardly worth the trouble, since the actual output at 30 to 35 percent of capacity is less than 10 percent of a standard coal-fired plant.

John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D. ([email protected]) teaches Emergency Medicine at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Hood, Texas and is a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and the American Council on Science and Health.