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Study: Huge wind energy potential off Eastern U.S.

Ocean conservation group finds the densely populated coast could meet almost half of its current electric demand by relying on offshore wind turbines.

2 min read

The densely populated U.S. East Coast could meet close to half its current electric demand by relying on offshore wind turbines, a study by an ocean conservation group found.

North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Virginia offer the most potential for easily captured wind energy, according to the Oceana study, which estimates that the 13 coastal states could together generate 127 gigawatts of power.

That represents the potential for far more wind power than the United States currently generates. At the end of 2009, the nation's land-based turbines were capable of producing some 35,000 megawatts of power--enough to meet the needs of 28 million typical American homes.

Investment in new wind turbines has surged in recent years, boosting sales at turbine makers including General Electric, Vestas Wind System, and Siemens.

However, all the U.S. wind farms built so far are on land. Advocates of offshore wind installations, led by backers of the Cape Wind facility proposed off the Cape Cod beach area in Massachusetts, have been working for almost a decade to try to win approval to build offshore turbines.

Opponents of Cape Wind argue that it could harm fisheries as well as sully views in a region dependent on tourism.

Oceana argues that wind offers an attractive alternative to offshore oil and natural gas drilling, particularly in the wake of the April BP rig explosion, which led to an undersea leak that poured oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico for 153 days.

"Our research revealed that harnessing offshore wind power in Atlantic waters is a much more cost-effective way to generate energy than oil and gas drilling," said Jacqueline Savitz, an author of the report.

Oceana argued the electricity generated by wind off the East Coast would save $36 billion in energy costs over a 20-year period and create 133,000 to 212,000 installation and maintenance jobs a year.

Tens of thousands of turbines
Hitting the 127 gigawatt number could mean installing 30,000 to 50,000 of the spinning turbines along the U.S. East Coast. That would be the equivalent of more than 200 projects the size of Cape Wind, which could become the nation's first wind farm.

That figure assumes current turbines sizes of 2.5 megawatts to 4 megawatts. But Savitz suggested the estimated figure of 30,000 to 50,000 turbines could well decline as turbine sizes increase.

"If you assume this is all coming into play over 10 or 15 years, these things are expected to get bigger and bigger," Savitz said.

Oceana's analysis of the East Coast's potential to generate power from the wind leaves out the New England states of New Hampshire and Maine, because their shorelines drop away quickly to deeper waters where it would be more difficult for developers to install turbines.

That same concern has kept developers away from the West Coast.

Cape Wind is not the only wind farm proposed off the Eastern seaboard. Developers are also working on projects off Rhode Island, Delaware, and New Jersey.