Damage Limitation


February 20, 2012

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US offshore wind isn’t short of detractors and – with the extension to the PTCs still hanging in the balance – the industry has been stuck in a state of inertia.

But the US still needs to solve the problem of meeting the demand for power along the Eastern seaboard – and the conundrum is whether to build out the grid connections from wind projects in the central US, or build offshore and run a number of interconnectors onshore.

But that’s by the by. What caught our eye last week was a study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh that highlighted the risks posed by extreme weather events to offshore wind developments on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Among the areas studied, the researchers claimed that a site at Galveston would have a 30% chance of having half of its equipment destroyed over a 20-year period.

The concern of the study isn’t necessarily the damage caused, but more the cost implications of having to construct turbines capable of withstanding or adapting to the damage. Or, making up the shortfall in the base load while these turbines are out of action.

In the UK, extreme weather events in December damaged a number of onshore wind turbines in Scotland leading to a repair bill that ran into millions. Moving up the cost scale for offshore, extreme weather repairs and replacement will come at an astronomical cost.

But before we hand easy ammunition to those who will always accuse the wind industry of being an expensive folly, let’s not forget that people live their lives in some of the most extreme places on the planet.

Naturally, the wind industry can and will adapt. Whether it’s through new technologies or through careful planning in the location of future offshore sites, the challenge will be overcome. Yes, there will be a price tag attached and yes, there’d be a perversity in refusing to address the problems that extreme weather events present.

However, while the development of wind power is increasingly driven by a need for energy independence – both at a local and national level – it would be be both ironic and foolhardy to dismiss the challenges that climate change presents.

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