Fledgling Wind Farms Prepped For Hurricane Wind farms are by their nature exposed to the elements, but now several energy companies are building wind towers in the hurricane-riddled Gulf of Mexico.
NPR logo Fledgling Wind Farms Prepped For Hurricane

Fledgling Wind Farms Prepped For Hurricane

Most wind turbines are designed to automatically shut off when winds reach speeds of around 50 mph. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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This is part of a diagram of the wind turbines that will be constructed for the Gulf Coast offshore wind farm. Click to see the full diagram. Courtesy WEST hide caption

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Courtesy WEST

This is part of a diagram of the wind turbines that will be constructed for the Gulf Coast offshore wind farm. Click to see the full diagram.

Courtesy WEST

WEST built this tower to monitor weather conditions and wind speed off the coast of Galveston, Texas. Courtesy WEST hide caption

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Courtesy WEST

As Gulf Coast oil companies brace for Hurricane Ike, the developers of new wind farm projects are confident their turbines can withstand the elements.

Hurricane Ike might be an early test for a fledgling offshore wind farm project in the Gulf. Wind Energy Systems Technology is moving forward with plans to build a 62-turbine wind farm off the Gulf Coast south of Houston. With one test tower constructed, company President Herman Schellstede says the towers his company designed can withstand winds of up to 150 miles per hour and 200 mph gusts.

"We've been building offshore oil and gas platforms for 42 years, so we are very acquainted with how to build structures out there to endure hurricanes," says Schellstede. "We don't feel uncomfortable saying [the towers] can withstand 150-mile-an-hour winds."

So far, the test tower has withstood 85 mph winds, and it may see winds of more than 100 miles an hour as the storm passes through Galveston on Saturday.

Hurricane-Ready Design

Unlike the single-pole-supported towers used in the majority of the European offshore wind farms, stronger structures are required to support turbines being built off the Gulf Coast. The European model just won't work in the Gulf, Schellstede says, because hurricanes and other cyclonic storms unleash more fierce winds. So, WEST developed a unique tripod designed to support the tower on three legs, which are buried more than 100 feet below the underwater mud line. Similarly, when winds get to around 55 miles per hour, automatic shut-off devices kick in on the turbines.

"Hurricanes are not 'good winds' for generating power," says Schellstede. Steady, reliable winds are more effective for energy production.

If the permits go through, WEST's offshore wind farm should begin supplying power to the city of Galveston by 2010. At 150 megawatts, the wind farm would supply enough energy for roughly 48,000 homes and could be the first offshore wind farm in the country. An offshore wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts also has a projected completion date of 2010; however, currently there are no completed offshore wind farms in the U.S.

Investing In Gulf Coast Winds

About 200 miles southeast of Galveston and just nine miles inland, another company is near completion of a 118-tower wind farm, the first-ever wind farm to be built on the Gulf Coast. Project leaders at Babcock & Brown say the project has taken many precautions to protect their wind towers from hurricanes, including using turbines specifically designed for typhoon conditions in Japan.

"You don't build $800 million projects casually," says John Calaway, chief development officer for wind energy at Babcock & Brown.

Offshore wind farms are gaining momentum in the U.S., says Laurie Jodziewicz of the American Wind Energy Association. And, since many in the oil and gas business have specialized in construction in marine environments, Jodziewicz says many see offshore wind farming as a potential area to expand their business.