The Storm Brewing in Offshore Wind Power

The Storm Brewing in Offshore Wind Power

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As North Carolina continues to grow in the wind power industry, developers are looking to expand beyond land-based wind farms and explore the state’s offshore wind capacity. The territory available off the coast of North Carolina has certain characteristics that make it uniquely qualified for offshore development.

The parcel currently in the process of being leased out by the Federal government for wind development is off the coast of Kitty Hawk, NC  far enough offshore that turbines would not be visible from land. Despite the distance from shore, the territory is in relatively shallow water, making construction and maintenance significantly less expensive than much deeper Pacific coast sites.

While the wind resources may not be quite as powerful as those in other parts of the world, the wind off North Carolina’s coast is abundant and steady enough to make this territory prime real estate for sizeable offshore wind farms.

One of the challenges North Carolina presents is its sometimes violent and unpredictable hurricane season. Turbines can handle most low category hurricanes, but as any longtime North Carolinian knows, our coast is not always lucky enough to avoid the high category storms. To developers, the Atlantic hurricane season could mean six months each year of uncertainty. If the hurricane is strong enough, it potentially could bend turbine blades, topple turbine posts, or reduce productivity. Although the odds of such damage are low, it is still an important consideration for developers.

wind turbine bladeEngineers at the University of Virginia have begun to design a wind turbine that can bend to a hurricane’s will and bounce right back. They have looked to something that has long withstood the forces of hurricanes for inspiration in their design — the hardy and flexible palm tree. Unlike most trees which snap or uproot in strong wind, palm trees can withstand and deflect even category 5 hurricane winds by bending down to the ground, then bouncing back up once the winds subside. This design would allow placement of turbines in areas with much higher winds where they couldn’t have survived before.

The new super turbine is not a quick fix to a small problem; it is a major shift in wind power generation that could completely reinvent the industry.

The team from UVA will first test the new super turbine on land in a mountain pass where winds routinely exceed 100 miles per hour. The super turbine will not only outpace its predecessors in durability, but also in productivity. With blades about as long as two football fields, it is expected to produce about ten times the power of existing models. A sectional assembly will make transportation and installation easier than ever before.

So what does this new design mean for North Carolina?
The state is already a leader in land-based wind power production. North Carolina leads in offshore development as well, as it is poised to host one of the nation’s first major offshore projects at the Kitty Hawk site.

This technology stands to open up a whole new level of opportunity for offshore power production along the coast of the Old North State. With the threat of damage from hurricanes out of the way, developers can focus on the issues they can control. Zoning restrictions are certainly a factor, but once more land is opened up for development, these super turbines will mean higher production, lower costs, and more reliable power. The economic growth and job development North Carolina could see as a result of this developing technology is staggering.

The new turbine still has quite a ways to go; its lead designer Eric Loth anticipates completion within the next ten years. That timeline may shorten considerably as the race to lead the clean energy industry heats up. The US is competing with engineers in Europe and China to be the first to market with new wind power tech. This competition is good for our engineers at UVA; it means increased grant funding and a commitment from the US Department of Energy to make sure those engineers succeed.

Until this new super turbine is completed, North Carolina companies will continue to lead the charge in the renewable energy sector. Wind power is becoming an unstoppable movement in North Carolina, a movement that [soon] even hurricanes will not be able to stop.

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