Oahu Offshore Wind Farm Proposed
Hawaii is already a hotbed of renewable energy research, so perhaps it’s not unexpected to hear about a proposal to situate as many as one hundred 200-meter tall wind turbines off the coast of Oahu. But it’s where the proposal is coming from, and how it might come to fruition, that makes it remarkable.
The Aloha State is already home to both experimental and utility-scale renewable energy projects. We have solar and wind energy, of course, but wave energy, geothermal, and even biofuels and hydrogen are in the mix. With the highest energy costs in the country (tied directly to our reliance on imported fuels), these alternative energy sources are good for business as well as good for the planet.
The Case for Wind Rises
Most people might associate Hawaii with sunshine, and to be sure, solar has a huge footprint in the islands. But wind energy, in which Hawaii was once a world leader in the 1980s, is again coming on strong. Unlike sunshine, wind blows 24 hours a day, and wind energy advocates say that the state could potentially generate all the electricity it needs via wind energy.
But wind farms on land are tricky. First of all, real estate in Hawaii is incredibly expensive. Secondly, there are ongoing concerns about their various impacts on the environment, from bird strikes that endanger threatened species to complaints about noise and visual blight. Local wind farm plans have met resistance across the state, including on Maui, on Lanai, and on Oahu.
The answer, according to many, is putting wind farms offshore. The potential is vast, with an NREL study estimating that Hawaii could generate over 7,000 GWh of power from wind farms on land, but over 2.8 million GWh of power from offshore installations.
Offshore wind energy farms have challenges of their own, of course, including the impact on ocean vessels, sea life, and in Hawaii, offshore military operations. When it comes to regulatory hurdles, be they environmental or political, Hawaii sets a pretty high bar.
A Federal Case
Last week, the Danish company Alpha Wind Energy submitted its Hawaii offshore wind energy lease application [PDF] to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which has jurisdiction over the outer continental shelf. The shelf is “the part of the internationally recognized continental shelf of the United States which does not fall under the jurisdictions of the individual U.S. States.”
Just last week, the BOEM granted its first wind energy research lease to a project off the coast of Virginia. And Hawaii has considerably more ocean acreage under BOEM jurisdiction, which starts three miles offshore and extends for nearly two hundred miles beyond.
In other words, for this project, the conversation begins with the federal government, rather than the state of Hawaii or the county of Honolulu.
Mapping the Way Forward
The Alpha Wind Energy project was first proposed in January, and included two separate offshore wind facilities. The “Oahu South Project” was proposed to be located about 17 miles south of Diamond Head, while the “Oahu Northwest Project” would be situated 12 miles northwest of Kaena Point. With 51 floating, 8-megawatt wind turbines between them, the offshore wind farms could provide 408 megawatts of electricity.
Interestingly, the offshore plan came after years of study by the Danish company that began in 2005 with talk of onshore wind energy farms on Molokai and Lanai. In its lease application, the company noted, those initial plans were “not in the Native Hawaiians interest.”
They studied the wind profile of the ocean around the Hawaiian Islands, and picked some promising spots. The sites they settled on had a number of things going for them:
- Some of the highest predicted wind energy levels in close vicinity to Oahu.
- An ocean depth that is realistic for the mooring of foundations.
- Relatively close to some of the existing important infrastructure on shore.
- Outside any designated environmentally protected areas.
- Limited merchant ship and fishing activities.
- Limited visibility from primary tourist beaches.
- Lightly impacted by undersea cables (or at least the unclassified and known ones).
The only asterisk was military activity. The company also said that it “has been waiting for the floating offshore wind energy technology to mature before we could move ahead on Hawaii.” But now they say they’re ready, and the BOEM agreed.
Towable Turbine Technology
Key to the Alpha Wind proposal is the WindFloat platform, which got its first full-scale test in Portugal in 2011. It was designed to overcome longstanding challenges to deploying wind turbines in deeper waters, and the WindFloat keeps things stable despite wave motion and the movement of the turbine.
The other advantage of the WindFloat is that it’s architected to be assembled on land, and can be towed in fully operational condition out to the mooring location. Most offshore wind energy facilities are assembled at sea, requiring offshore heavy-lift operations with multiple vessels and cranes. And should they need major repairs (or replacement after a 50-year design life), the turbines can be towed back to a harbor for the work.
For the Hawaii installation, the company says construction could create up to 100 permanent jobs, with relocation and installation at sea requiring only a handful of ocean vessels.
Of course, all the power generated offshore will have to be delivered to the Oahu power grid. Alpha Wind proposes that the power generated by the turbines be collected first at an offshore substation, and then transmitted on shore. And there we find one of the trickier questions left to answer: where will the cable landing point be located?
The lease application identifies three destinations for the generated power: Kahe Power Plant, Barbers Point industrial area, and the Wahiawa substation. But with the wind farm located far off Kaena Point, there’s quite a lot of distance to cover (and, in the case of Wahiawa, much of it on land).
Amusingly, the application suggests that being able to see a windfarm from shore isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though the northwestern site would be largely out of sight. For example, the company says, a site south of Oahu might not be such a bad thing “since the ocean only covers 120 degrees of the horizon at Waikiki, the sun sets over Barbers Point industrial park, the sky is filled with airplanes, and the view is filled with ships, tourists, industrial areas, hotels and resorts.”
“It is very likely that the Project will become a tourist attraction where tour boats will take tourists past the Project to show the size and awe of the Project,” the application notes. “In addition it is very likely that there will be a significant increased population of fish around the foundations which will make it very attractive fishing grounds.”
With the lease application filed, state officials will work with the feds to convene an “Intergovernmental Renewable Energy Task Force” to move things forward. There will be a Request for Interest published in the Federal Register that would invite both public comment as well as to determine if any other company wants to make a bid to use the ocean sites that Alpha Wind is seeking to lease.
Despite years of study and planning, the company knows most of its work lies ahead. There are significant environmental considerations, first of all, as well as the practical implications a cluster of tall wind turbines at sea would present to ocean navigation and aviation. And Native Hawaiians are mentioned thirteen times in the application.
“We know that many proposed projects on Hawaii have failed due to resistance from local people,” the application notes. “AWE has therefore carefully studied Hawaiian history and consulted with Native Hawaiian leaders to understand what could potentially be acceptable to them and particularly, what is not acceptable to them.”
Many stakeholders will surely make their views known when the RFI is released. But as a geek, it’s hard for me to not be impressed with the sheer scale of what Alpha Wind is proposing. Given the unending and understandable resistance to placing wind farms on precious plots of land, it’s fair to say that Hawaii certainly has a lot of ocean space to spare.
You can read the entire Hawaii Offshore Wind Energy Lease Application [PDF] online, and check out this video of the WindFloat platform: