The Untapped Offshore Resource Obama Is Ignoring

President Obama probably made lots of fat cat oil execs happy when he opened up new areas of the Atlantic coastline to prospecting and drilling for oil and natural gas, but the decision won’t do a whole lot to get us off of foreign oil — or off of oil and other fossil fuels altogether, for that matter. Many environmentalists, including on this blog, decried this as a short-sighted and unnecessary move. A new study shows more clearly than ever why it was such a bad decision by demonstrating the viability of another untapped resource off the Atlantic coast: the wind.

The best argument for wind over oil is probably that wind resources don’t threaten our coastal eco-systems with devastating wind spills. But wind power does have its limiting factors, and this new study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences on April 5th, shows how to address one of the big ones.

As much as the wind might be an infinitely renewable resource, it isn’t always blowing. Some times it’s raging, some times it isn’t blowing at all. We simply can’t have that much fluctuation in our power supply. In fact, this issue of unreliability has long been one of the chief arguments against large-scale wind power. This argument, however, just lost a whole lot of merit.

As WIRED reports: “The concept is simple: If you spread out wind stations far enough, each one will experience a different weather pattern. So it’s very unlikely that a slackening of the wind would affect all stations at once. The result is steadier power.”

A team of scientists at the University of Delaware spent five years analyzing data from 11 meteorological stations strung along the Atlantic coast, from Maine all the way down to Florida. Their study shows that if you were to put wind turbines in those locations and link them all with a transmission cable, you could avoid the dramatic dips in power. Though individual stations occasionally would drop out altogether or fluctuate drastically from hour to hour, overall output of the entire simulated transmission grid never dropped to zero or even changed more than 10 percent in any hour-long time period.

As marine-policy expert and co-author of the report Willett Kempton said, “We took an intermittent resource and made it not intermittent anymore.”

Another argument against wind has been that it is an eyesore, which people simply don’t want in their backyard. Cape Wind has been repeatedly stalled in large part thanks to just this type of NIMBYism on the part of local Cape Cod residents. But given Obama’s recent announcement about offshore drilling, the question must be asked: Would you rather have wind turbines and the free, clean energy they supply, or oil rigs and the global warming and oil spills that come along with them?

Other issues with wind power, such as bird deaths, are easily mitigated because they are local — or at least more easily mitigated than global warming, which, as the name denotes, is global in nature and impacts everyone, including birds.

I wrote before that onshore wind resources in the U.S. could supply more than nine times what Americans are currently consuming on an annual basis. Now consider that offshore winds are even stronger and more constant, and this study has shown that wind power can be constant enough to be a primary source of power, in fact. But that will take significant investment in infrastructure, and as long as Obama is giving handouts to the already bloated oil industry and ignoring the clean, green resources lying off our coasts, that’s not likely to happen.

Image credit: Phault

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