Google Backs Offshore Wind Farm Backbone


Google’s (s GOOG) investments into clean power keep on comin’. On the heels of Google’s plans to buy wind power from an Iowa wind farm earlier this year, late last night the search engine giant said it will invest in a transmission backbone that will run 350 miles off the Mid-Atlantic coast, from New Jersey to Virginia, that will connect with offshore wind farms.

Transmission lines are critical power infrastructure that are needed to connect remote clean power sources — the sun in the deserts, the wind on hills and offshore — to electricity users in cities. California alone will need seven new transmission lines if its investor-owned utilities are to reach the state’s goal of getting 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, according to the California Public Utilities Commission (see Renewable Energy Charging up Transmission Tech, subscription required).

There are major barriers to getting these built, including financing, regulations, and the always-fun NIMBY. Google says it will help tackle part of this first funding hurdle, and plans to invest 37.5 percent of the initial funding for the transmission line, with investors Good Energies and Marubeni Corporation adding in the remaining equity. The massive costs to actually build the east coast offshore line, estimated at $5 billion, will be paid for through separate financing, which is planned for 2013, says Google.

The offshore transmission line could bring down the cost of building offshore wind farms dramatically. Offshore wind power is far more expensive than fossil fuel-generated electricity, but onshore wind turbines are some of the cheapest sources of clean power out there. The hope is that when more offshore wind farms are built off the costs of the U.S., the prices will come down closer to the costs of their onshore cousins.

When built, the Google-backed transmission line, called the Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC), will be able to connect 6 gigawatts of offshore wind turbines, which as Google notes in its blog post, is 60 percent of all of the wind capacity installed in the U.S. in 2009. Transmission company Trans-Elect is overseeing the construction of the line, and according to the New York Times, the first 150 miles will cost $1.8 billion and could start pumping clean power by early 2016, with the rest of the line getting completed by 2021.

Google has been ramping up its support of clean power throughout 2010. Earlier this year, it was announced that, through Google’s energy subsidiary Google Energy, Google would buy clean power from an Iowa wind farm. The establishment of Google Energy — which has been approved to buy and sell clean power on the wholesale markets — was an interesting move in itself.

I think a major motivator for Google’s clean power aims is to figure out how to use its investments to supply its data centers with low-cost, clean power. As I noted in my article The Real Reason Google Is Buying Clean Power (subscription required) Google’s Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl told us that Google could theoretically buy wind power (like from the Iowa farm), then sell it back on the wholesale market (earning renewable energy credits) until some future time when it could be used to power a data center. In theory, the transmission link for the east coast, and the offshore wind farms that will be built around it, could be used to power Google data centers one day.

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Image courtesy of phault.

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