Even without an advanced degree, you can admire the technology behind offshore wind farms - the underwater construction, the towers, the turbines, the elegant physics of the whole thing. That these spinning blades can power homes, factories and whole cities is, well, pretty cool. This is easy to see. Obvious. What people rarely ever think about is how all that electricity gets back to shore. Enter the humble power grid.
The UK's first wind farm in the Irish Sea which will supply 50,000 homes with power.
Thoughtabout or not, power grids take years to build -
especially across theocean floor. It's not like you can make do
with a few kilometers ofextension cord and duct tape. There are,
first off, the technicalchallenges. Salt water is not the best for
electrical components, so itwill have to be kept out despite
hundreds of kilos of water pressure.Then there are the distances
involved, and the various environmentalconsiderations - the effects
of electro-magnetic fields, noise andconstruction on marine
Fortunately, most of these challenges already have solutions
gainedfrom experience with existing wind farm instillations. No
doubt a lotof hard work and cleverness will still be needed, but
the technologiesinvolved are proven enough that, from an
engineering perspective, thereis every reason to expect success at
It's on shore that the real troubles begin - troubles that are
morepolitical, institutional and bureaucratic than technical. On
land thepower grid has often been built by existing old guard
companies thathave their own power plants (coal, nuclear, etc.),
and aren't keenabout competition from the emerging wind industry.
Of course, theexisting grids are mostly optimized for the benefit
of these old guardpower companies.
To put it simplistically: Starting at the power plants, big
electriccable trunks branch out to smaller and smaller cables that
carry asmaller and smaller amount of power. Another way to picture
it is tolook at how thick the cable running into your home is.
Compare this tothe much smaller wires going to individual
appliances (like a lamp ormicrowave). It's sort of like water
pipes, big ones branch out tolittle ones, and the one that goes to
your tap is a lot smaller thenthe one going into your house from
With this in mind, you can see how it doesn't work to take a
big1000-megawatt cable, supplying electricity from a wind farm, and
plugit into a much smaller regular street cable. But odds are that
wherethe cable from a wind farm comes to shore is at the edge of
the landgrid - where there are only regular street cables serving
residentialneeds. Therefore, new trunk cables, and other grid
infrastructure,needs to be added to accommodate the wind farm. This
is not a seriousengineering problem, and is done all the time when
a power plant isbuilt someplace new. Of course, the old guard power
companies resistchanges to "their" power grid that will let the
wind industry compete.
But if these entrenched forces can be overcome, offshore wind
has hugepotential. Although it's comparatively small now, the wind
industry isalready growing despite these odds (by 20 percent last
year), andfuture payoffs are going to be huge. For example, with
gridmodernization by 2020 offshore wind power could be supplying
enoughenergy to the European Union for every single one of its 150
millionhouseholds. And, naturally, the EU doesn't have a monopoly
on wind -vast potential exists around the world - but without the
humble powergrid it goes nowhere.
Take action: sign up for free e-zine
Become a cyberactivist and you'll get free information about how you can take action with us to promote positive energy solutions.
Donate to help us promote wind power
To ensure our independence, we don't accept funding from corporations or governments. We count on millions of people like you to keep us in action, exposing environmental crimes around the world.