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Feds Blow $50M Into Offshore Wind Research

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Offshore wind power — using large wind turbines off the coasts to generate electricity — will get a $50.5 million boost from a joint Energy Department-Interior Department research program announced today. The “National Offshore Wind Strategy” plan includes money to both develop better technology and create new ways to bring it to market, and it targets the mid-Atlantic target zones, including the same East Coast states that Google (s GOOG) and partners have identified for a $5 billion offshore transmission cable project.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s designation of thousands of square miles off the coasts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia as “Wind Energy Areas” may well be the most important part of Monday’s announcement. That opens up would-be wind projects to early environmental reviews to speed permitting and approval of wind turbine facilities.

Those are the same states targeted for a 350-mile offshore transmission cable meant to connect future offshore wind farms. Google announced in October that it planned 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 U.S. lags far behind Europe when it comes to offshore wind and the transmission grids needed to connect them to shore. The European Union has set forth on a “Supergrid” plan to connect some 100 gigawatts of North Sea wind power now being planned by countries including Denmark, Germany and the U.K., and companies like Siemens and ABB have lined up multi-billion dollar offshore wind transmission projects in recent months. Ambitions are grand — Scotland, for one, hopes to see £7.1 billion ($11.4 billion) in offshore wind investment over the next 10 years.

The U.S. has no offshore wind, and only one project close to beginning construction. That’s the beleaguered Cape Wind project, which is expected to cost between $1 billion and $2 billion and will produce just under half a gigawatt of power. After receiving final government permits late last year, Cape Wind has been seeking future buyers for its power amidst a tough market.

As for Google et. al.’s mid-Atlantic project, financing isn’t set to begin until 2013, Google said. Of course, that’s a minimum timeframe for additional planning for both the high-voltage undersea cable and the wind farms that are meant to provide it power.

The mid-Atlantic won’t be favored for too long, however. This spring, the Interior Department also plans to announce wind energy areas off the coast of North Atlantic states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as the North Carolina coast.

Monday’s research grant openings come in three areas — wind turbine hardware and software technology development ($25 million), next-generation drivetrains ($7.5 million), and research into removing market barriers for offshore wind (up to $18 million over 3 years). That last category is interesting, as it’s aimed at the softer sciences for “baseline studies and targeted environmental research” into everything into offshore site planning to manufacturing and supply chain efficiency, not to mention market and economic analyses.

Offshore wind turbines cost about twice as much to install as their land-based cousins, and that makes their power more expensive. On the other hand, wind blows strongest and steadiest at sea, which should allow offshore wind turbines to offer better efficiencies and shorter payback periods over time. Wind turbine prices fell to a five-year low last year, as plenty of supply has run up against economic crises in Europe and falling natural gas prices in the U.S.

Total global wind power installations grew 22.5 percent to 35.8 gigawatts last year, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. In Europe, however, onshore wind power installations declined slightly (13.9 percent) in 2010 compared to the previous year, while offshore wind installations grew 51 percent to 9.3 gigawatts, bringing the continent’s total to 84 gigawatts.

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Image courtesy of JamezSA via Creative Commons license.