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Will US offshore energy sink or swim?
Driving back to Michigan after attending the EnergyOcean conference in Boston this week (a conference catering to the Offshore Renewables Energy industry) has given me ample time to ponder the status of the US Offshore Renewables Energy market. The running joke among some of us vendors exhibiting at the show has been that we are attending the conference for the industry that doesn’t quite exist yet. Of course that is flippant remark and there are many people in the industry who are working tirelessly to move projects ahead, many with significant success but to a lay person such as myself, it sure seems like an uphill battle.
What’s not to like? Whether its wind, wave or current (tidal or convection), the oceans are a means of indirectly converting almost limitless amounts of solar energy and the earths rotational inertia (tidal energy) into a form that we can, using existing technology, tap into on a very large scale. While a very pedantic person might argue that tidal generators are not truly renewable energy sources (they slow the earth’s rotation at an infinitesimally small amount) all these systems are in effect, renewable and clean.
We saw at the show displays of many systems that are up and running in Europe and theUKwhere the offshore renewables sector is an established part of the web of society but not here in theUS. We have the funding, the technology but it appears not the will. Why is that?
Though there are a multitude of reasons for why this is so, it appears to me that it comes down to three main reasons:
Economic: TheUS in recent years has tapped into a windfall of natural gas in the Marcellus shale gas reserves ofPennsylvania. Though the means of extracting it is controversial, it provides a source of energy that is considered within the population that bothers to consider such things to be relatively clean, cheap, easy to access and abundant.
It has, at least for now, filled a political niche in the national psyche for a “clean” energy source taking the political pressure off the need to develop the thorny issue of developing offshore renewables energy. True or not, notions that the extraction of shale gas disrupts the rural communities above where the gas lays, that the extraction process of “fracking” may result in contamination to subterranean water sources and that the pressure differential within the rock left after gas extraction has taken place could result in excessive seismic action are all swept under the social carpet as being the rants of environmental radicals.
Socio/Political: Has anybody else noticed that in say, the last 10 years or so, how every cause or political movement that comes along conducts “Town Hall Meetings” prior to going about a big undertaking?
My admittedly cynical view of these meetings is that the operators of large endeavor understand a community to be one big psyche that will swallow just about anything they chose to throw at it so long as it is consulted nicely. The organization will encourage the community to air it’s many and varied opinions without rebuttal. It will make sure that the organizations representative acts as a lightening rod to dissipate the energy of the rancor within the community. The tempest is short, sweet and isolated. Once it is dissipated the organization takes great pains to treat the community with the utmost respect while it goes about doing exactly what it intended to do in the first place.
It seems that once that process has been gone through, organizations are much more likely to be able to proceed with their endeavor then if they just go at it and damn the torpedos.
I think I saw the effect of the “damn the torpedos” approach as I stayed last weekend with a friend onCape Cod. Driving onto theCapeI noticed two moderately large wind generators churning away on dry land. I thought to myself “that looks like trouble”. Once I arrived at my friend’s place, I asked them about it and sure enough, they told me that the generators were a source of huge and ongoing contention on the cape with members of the public experiencing any number of apparent effects from the generators. The uproar is so strong they felt it would not be surprising if the generators were eventually removed.
So, why is it that one set of generators will give a whole population problems with noise and headaches and yet a similar generator in another region of the country will be installed and operated among populations without complaint, and even with pride of the community? There was nothing special about these generators that I could tell as I parked my car directly below them. In fact I had to open the door and stick my head out of the car in order to hear them at all. What I did hear sounded to me as being of a similar band of spectrum as wind in a sail. I wouldn’t want to live under it but it wasn’t as oppressive as say, a gasoline generator. The difference between these generators and others was the political manner in which they were installed; They were apparently installed without first setting up an effective political lightening rod.
I wonder if rather then installing assets around the country in a haphazard manner, the renewable energy industry developed a cohesive and communicable plan and presented that plan to the population in the form of lightening rod campaigns, that they may be a lot further down the road towards reaching the countries stated goals for renewable energy supply and the involved communities would be much the happier.
Social System: It seems there is a direct correlation between the fact that theUS uses imperial measurement while Europe uses Metric and the fact that theUS has not adopted offshore renewables whileEurope has.
Maybe the true reason for the US delay in taking on offshore renewable energy may lay in the method of passing legislation and the power of powerful lobbyist with interests that directly conflict with those of offshore renewables.
Throughout the 19th and 20th century, Metrication occurred throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand and others. Many of those governments did so by the so called “Big-Bang” method by simply passing a law and enforcing it. Others “metricated” over a longer period but still to a firm plan. In 1968, after experts in the field testified to congress  that the long term benefits of using a precise, decimal system the US planned to follow suit starting in 1975 but a year or two into the effort, the lobbyists who represented the manufacturing industry which was faced with great, though short term, re-tooling expenses, effectively quashed the movement and the US today is still using he increasingly inefficient Imperial measurement system. I’m afraid I cant give you a reference to prove this. Lobbyists are tricky that way.
All of the European countries that have adopted offshore renewables are to a greater or lesser degree, socialist. Right or wrong, the populaces of these countries are willing to allow their governments to educate themselves as to what they believe is best for their country and then propose to parliament legislation to support their findings. The government is elected to govern, it makes a decision, a law is passed, a permit is granted, a wind farm goes up. In theUS, it seems that the big decisions fundamental to the direction in which the country chooses to go are not dictated by government but by industry.
I once heard it explained that Parliaments can make really good, or really bad decisions very quickly while Congress is very slow and staid. Like a conservative financial strategy, the congressional system has provided stability and prosperity for over 200 years (with the exception of the Civil War). European parliaments on the other hand have had varied and mixed fortunes. It’s not for me to say which is better or worse system but I do wonder if the tried and true congressional model is able to adequately respond the pressures of the speed of modern business.
In any case, until the energy industry which includes the farm lobby (due to bio-fuel) as well as oil, gas and coal decides it is in their interests to get behind offshore renewables, I’m not going to hold my breath that any very large scale movement towards installation of offshore renewables is going to occur in the US anytime soon.
However, I will continue to attend and support this excellent show. It is an interesting sector for us to pursue. Our particular interest is in performing installation site surveys and cable route surveys. Both are required by experimentalists as well as full scale operations so we feel there is a place for us in this fascinating industry.
 Zupko, Ronald Edward (1990). Revolution in Measurement – Western European Weights and Measures SInce the Age of Science. Memoirs of teh American Philosophical Society.
 “A Metric America: A Decision Whose Time Has Come”. June 1992. Retrieved 2008-12-01.