Breezy Talk: Interior Secretary Salazar's Offshore Wind Dreams

By Keith Johnson
Wall Street Journal
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is heavily touting the offshore wind-power potential of the U.S. Is he overdoing it?

Salazar: Offshore wind is like 3,000 coal plants (AP)

Secretary Salazar, in Atlantic City for the first of four public meetings to discuss America's offshore energy resources, raised eyebrows when he said offshore wind farms could replace 3,000 coal-fired plants. He contends that the offshore wind potential just in the Atlantic-the easiest region to develop-totals about 1,000 gigawatts.
Let's put that in context. The entire electricity-generation capacity of the U.S., including coal, gas, nuclear, hydropower and other renewables, is just over 1,000 gigawatts. There are only about 1,400 coal plants in operation in the U.S., accounting for about 336 gigawatts of power. So that would indeed be a lot of wind.
But of that nominal 1,000 gigawatts of Atlantic wind potential, 770 gigawatts are in deep waters (that is, 200 feet or more). There are currently no deep-water wind farms anywhere in the world.
Even shallow-water wind farms are far from a slam-dunk: Of the world's 120 gigawatts of wind power, less than 1% are installed offshore. A single landlocked project, T. Boone Pickens' planned wind farm in Texas, would be three times bigger than the world's stock of offshore wind farms.
But one thing is the theoretical wind resource and another is the amount of power the country can realistically develop. Secretary Salazar focused on the wind-power potential of the mid-Atlantic, which is about 463 gigawatts. Realistically, he said, 40% of that could be developed-or about 185 gigawatts. That's still almost double the power potential of the U.S. nuclear fleet.
But wind power, even offshore wind power, isn't the same as coal or nuclear. Offshore wind farms in Europe are lucky to generate 40% of their listed capacity. So that limits that mid-Atlantic resource to about 74 gigawatts. And that doesn't even consider the technical and economic hurdles that still dog offshore wind power and make it less competitive than its onshore cousin.
Vestas, the world's leading maker of wind turbines, knows a thing or two about wind power. Chief executive Ditlev Engel is obviously bullish on U.S. wind power-he figures the U.S. could easily pull a Denmark and get 50% of its electricity from the wind. But not even Mr. Engel, who makes the massive turbines for offshore wind farms, thinks that path makes much sense for the U.S.
"Why would the U.S. do offshore wind? It has plenty of resources on land; offshore wind is for countries without that kind of resource," he said in February.