Carrying Wind Power, Underwater

This week, investors including Google announced a $5 billion plan to build an underwater transmission line off the East Coast. The line will tie power from offshore wind farms to the Eastern power grid. Willett Kempton, of the University of Delaware, explains the project.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I am Ira Flatow.

This week, a group of investors, including Google, announced plans to spend $5 billion - that's with a B - on something called the Atlantic Wind Connection. And no, that's not a new singing group. The idea is to build a massive underwater electric grid off the East Coast, from New Jersey to Virginia just so that the yet-to-be-built offshore wind farms that people keep talking about can more easily plug into the grid that serves the rest of the country, the Eastern United States.

It's sort of a backbone that would serve as a way to get all that electricity once that - once those wind farms are in place, back to the shore. So backers of the project say it still has to clear a lot of hurdles, and it could provide some 6,000 megawatts of power when the first stage is complete.

And joining me now to talk about it is Willett Kempton. He's professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment and in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Delaware. He's also the director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration there.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. KEMPTON.

Dr. WILLETT KEMPTON (Director, Center for Carbon-free Power Integration, University of Delaware): Thank you, Ira. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: This was your idea, was it not? How does it feel to see it get some traction?

Dr. KEMPTON: Well, it's sort of pinch-me-am-I-dreaming, you know? Usually, academics aren't used to doing some analysis and publishing a paper and have it turn into a $6 billion infrastructure project the next year.

FLATOW: So can you tell - share with us how you got that done?

Dr. KEMPTON: Well, I don't think we got it done. I mean, it was a whole bunch of people in the industrial side, of course, working and lining up investors and designing and all that. But we kicked off the idea of it, maybe. We started out with the idea of - if there's going to be a lot of wind farms, there's going to have to be the connection. Everybody was thinking about a connection from each wind farm straight to shore.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you came up with a different idea.

Dr. KEMPTON: Yeah. We thought that if we connected along from one to the next, the - because storm patterns tend to move up along the coast, and because one of the problems with wind power is that it fluctuates, we said let's see what happens by looking at the meteorology if you have one wind farm after the other connected, which means they're acting as if it was all one big spread out wind farm.

And what we found: You get much more steady power.

FLATOW: Hmm. And you estimate that the wind off the U.S. Northeast is sufficient to provide all the electricity, all light-vehicle transportation fuel, and all building heats for the adjacent states, for Massachusetts, North Carolina. There's that much there.

Dr. KEMPTON: That's right. That was precisely stated, yes.

FLATOW: Well, we like to do our homework.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But how - so how - what's it going to take now, now that you have the commitment, and were you surprised that Google jumped in as a backer here or something you expected?

Dr. KEMPTON: Didn't expect that at all.

FLATOW: No.

Dr. KEMPTON: I mean, it makes sense, in retrospect. But...

FLATOW: Yeah. And - but is it possible that some of the coal-fired power plants could tap in and say, you know, now that you're building this grid out there in the Atlantic - and we are talking about an offshore grid - maybe we could use this...

Dr. KEMPTON: Sure. In fact, you know, it's nice to think about it as, you know, pure green energy, all that stuff. But I think an important part of the business model - because we have, as you mentioned in the intro, no wind farms right now. So, you know, people ask, well, what if they built a $6 billion backbone and nobody came? You know, there won't be anybody or maybe two or three wind farms with the total, at best, of half a gigawatt, so what do you do with the lines before the wind farms are there? I think it's very important that in the Atlantic Coast there, we also have big differentials in power prices.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KEMPTON: So coal or anything else can be moved along that line, buy low sell high.

FLATOW: But is there the possibility and the fear that they might just take it over and forget about the wind farm? We've got the backbone, we're not giving it up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KEMPTON: Well, that'll be up to the rules. You know, that's the rules of transmission, and those are all sort of very well worked out, and also what contracts the written up front.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, Ed, how deep in the water are we talking about here?

Dr. KEMPTON: Roughly a hundred feet.

FLATOW: And do you have commitments from the turbine makers and are there, you know, are all those ducks lining up to make this come true?

Dr. KEMPTON: I don't believe there's any commitments from the turbine makers or the developers who buy the turbines and place them out there and then sell the power. But it's going to be very attractive to them for several reasons. So I don't think that commitment - those commitments are needed at this point.

FLATOW: And what is the attraction to them when you say several reasons?

Dr. KEMPTON: Well, you are, you know, if you are building something out past three miles from shore, you're in federal waters, so you have a single agency that you work primarily with, that is the Department of Interior. But once you want to run a line into shore, you have to work with another set of state agencies. So the first reason that it's going to be attractive is it simplifies permitting. You're not getting, you know, another bunch of permits to run your cable to shore. You're just connecting up somewhere near your offshore wind farm.

FLATOW: From a technical point of view, do we need to invent any new technology, or do we have what we have, it's just a matter of installing them, the stuff we have?

Dr. KEMPTON: Oh, this is a high-voltage, direct-current transmission line, and that's, in some sense, a more advanced form of technology. But the Kennedy administration put in such a line - it was on land, rather than in the water -that runs from Washington state to Los Angeles. So it's, you know, 60-year-old technology.

FLATOW: So you just, basically, unspool it, like you were running a trans-Atlantic cable?

Dr. KEMPTON: It is like that, except it's a big power cable. You know, its capacity, as you said, is 6,000 megawatts or six gigawatts. And the entire Northeast uses the 73 gigawatts. So you're doing - putting down one wire that can run 10 percent of the electricity for the whole Northeast. So it's a big wire.

FLATOW: So you're going to - you have to dig a little bit to get it buried? You're not just going to leave it laying where the fish can get at it?

Dr. KEMPTON: Yeah. Fish probably wouldn't bother it, but sometimes, ships drag anchors - that can be very dangerous. So they will - they have a machine called a jet plow. It just drags behind the ship. If you look on the surface, you see a ship with this very bizarre huge spool of wire, bigger than anything you've ever seen, hanging over the edge of the ship. And that's spooling out the back of the ship.

And what you can't see is that spool, that wire goes down to the bottom, and there's a plow being dragged behind the ship. The front of the plow has a jet of water blowing down and knocking sand and gravel out and making a trench in front. The cable just falls right into that trench. And on the back is a plow that pushes the sand and gravel back into the trench behind. So you're, literally, just steaming along in your ship reeling out cable, and it's getting pushed down into a trench at the bottom.

FLATOW: And so the continental shelf on the East Coast is an ideal place for this where it may not work, let's say, in the Pacific or some other place?

Dr. KEMPTON: Well, yeah, the Pacific drops off very quickly. And I don't know how cable is laid in those kind of really deep areas, but, at least, it would be much more complicated because it's not so flat and even, plus much deeper. If something goes wrong, you can't send a diver down, right.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KEMPTON: It might be possible, but it's going to be - this is an easy place to start.

FLATOW: Did people smack their heads and say, hey, why didn't I think of this before...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...after you had to say it?

Dr. KEMPTON: I don't know. The first reaction when we started talking about it was that's too big of a project, you know, or...

FLATOW: That's always the first reaction, isn't it?

Dr. KEMPTON: Right, right.

FLATOW: You have to get pass that reaction.

Dr. KEMPTON: Yeah.

FLATOW: And how many wind turbines, windmills as we used to call them, do you envision in a project like this?

Dr. KEMPTON: Let's see, well, as I say, first, you just have a few wind farms but - let's see, I guess, I can calculate that on the fly here, on the radio. The pressure is on. So it should be something like 3,000 large wind turbines that would fill the line.

FLATOW: And they would be way offshore, miles offshore?

Dr. KEMPTON: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: So...

Dr. KEMPTON: The - I don't know the exact numbers, but it's in the range of 20 miles offshore. So, you know, on a clear day, you'd be able to see windmills. If it's a little hazy, you probably wouldn't. But they'd be tiny, you know, little toothpicks on the horizon.

FLATOW: And so what's the timeframe? When do we expect to see all this happening?

Dr. KEMPTON: I believe 2016 is the idea, to have it running. As you mentioned, there's a lot of permitting. There's some uncertainties on timing and stuff. But they the plan, the goal, is 2016. And that's - a lot of people are going to have to be working between now and then to do that.

First, you've got the lawyers working, and then you've got the construction workers and...

FLATOW: In that order.

Dr. KEMPTON: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: Well, thank you for taking time to be with us, Professor Kempton. We'll keep an eye on you. Is that okay?

Dr. KEMPTON: Sure.

FLATOW: We'll watch your progress.

Dr. KEMPTON: Okay. Thanks.

FLATOW: Willett Kempton is a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment and in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Delaware.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: