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Offshore Wind Farm Preliminary Studies Underway at ODU

  • Larry Atkinson
  • John Klinck

Researchers at Old Dominion University are working on several fronts to collect and analyze data in order to prepare the way for electricity-producing wind farms off the Atlantic coast.

The university's Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography (CCPO) is particularly well situated and staffed to answer some of the fundamental questions that government and industry have about design requirements for offshore wind projects on the East Coast.

Among them: What strength of winds and currents will these structures be exposed to? And, what happens when wind is rushing in one direction and the current in another?

"You have building codes for houses. We need similar building codes for these turbines and towers," said Larry Atkinson, ODU's Slover Professor of Oceanography and an expert in the climatology of coastal waters. "You have to know what these things will have to withstand."

For several years, Atkinson and other ODU faculty members have been active in the wind-energy initiative of the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC). But only recently have they received significant amounts of external research funding for preliminary studies. "We're getting some real traction now, and we hope to have a lot of answers within the next year or two," Atkinson said.

The ODU researchers have received nearly $200,000 to conduct these studies, half of it from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), the host agency for the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority.

For the DMME project, ODU oceanographers, including Atkinson and Professor John Klinck, the CCPO director, will examine wind conditions at several locations in southeastern Virginia that the state is considering as sites for test turbine/towers that would be one-fourth to one-half the size of the actual ones. Prospective sites include tracts at both ends of the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel and another that is near the fourth island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

Working with Atkinson and Klinck on the project will be researchers at James Madison University and scientists at Weatherflow Inc., a private company in Hampton Roads. "Weatherflow will provide high-resolution atmospheric model forecasts, or predictions, to CCPO oceanographers, and we will analyze the results," Atkinson said.

For the U.S. Department of the Interior, Atkinson and other ODU researchers are helping in the design of engineering criteria for the offshore wind turbines. Atkinson explained: "For example, what will the strongest winds be? Do the large waves align with the wind, or are they at different angles? What are the maximum water currents at the surface and bottom during hurricanes and nor'easters?"

This project also includes scientists and engineers from Virginia Tech, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the private Applied Research Associates of Raleigh, N.C., and the private Offshore Risk and Technology Consulting Inc. of Houston.

"Before an insurance company will insure a ship or an offshore oil rig, a recognized arbiter of construction standards must inspect it and put a stamp of approval on it saying that the correct gauge of steel was used, and so forth. Those standards are what will be developed for these East Coast offshore wind farms," Atkinson said.

Yet another project, this one funded by the U.S. Department of Energy - is supporting analysis by ODU oceanographers of data collected by a wind turbine already constructed at the Lewes campus of the University of Delaware. The ODU task is to compare the data to atmospheric and oceanographic conditions that can be expected out in nearby coastal waters.

Atkinson said that enough ODU faculty and students have projects in this field - and more in the sciences and engineering are anticipated - to make him consider the formation of an "offshore renewable energy research cluster" that would promote regular interaction among all of them. Key work is also being done by José Blanco, a research scientist in Chile who collaborates with CCPO affiliates; Ravi Chekuru, a CCPO technician; and Mahmoud Kamel, an ODU master's student in oceanography who is looking at the effects of offshore wind turbines on ocean circulation.

"We have some idea of how wind turbines reduce the winds, but there are very few studies of how these wind changes affect the ocean," said Klinck.

Another of Atkinson's wind-energy assignments comes from the American Meteorological Society. He is a member of the society's Offshore Wind Energy Committee, which has been charged with determining the "need and expansion of environmental data needed to support studies of the wind resource and conditions relevant to wind farm development in offshore locations."

Gov. Bob McDonnell came to the ODU Innovation Research Park in 2010 to sign the legislation creating the Offshore Wind Development Authority, the same park where CCPO resides and that now houses the office of Cathi France, the DMME deputy director for energy policy and point person for McDonnell's push to harness wind energy off the Virginia coast.

On Wednesday, August 17, state and national officials who are responsible for coordinating the development of mid-Atlantic offshore wind farms and other ocean energy projects are to meet on the ODU campus to hash out a progress report. The meeting has been organized by the Virginia Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Offshore Alternative Energy Programs. The group has invited public comment and questions between 12:45-1:30 p.m. in the Portsmouth/Chesapeake/Virginia Beach Room at Webb University Center.lic from 12:45-1:30 p.m.

ODU also is the home of VCERC, whose wind-energy research program is headed by George Hagerman, who lives in Hampton Roads even though he is employed by the Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute.

"We have several private companies here in Hampton Roads interested in wind energy, and the university research and government facilitators are also here to make this area a center of wind energy enterprise," Atkinson said. He added that he believes there is a good chance that the first East Coast wind farms will be built off Virginia. "But regardless of where they go offshore they can be assembled and deployed from Hampton Roads."

Early this year, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu chose Norfolk as the site of a news conference announcing that the federal government could begin leasing wind-energy development sites off Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey by the end of the year. They also announced the Obama administration's intention to make more than $50 million available over the next five years for offshore wind initiatives.

Last year, a study by VCERC predicted that within a decade wind-turbine projects off the coast of Virginia could produce electricity at competitive costs and create thousands of jobs. The 67-page report, which reflected 30 months of fact-finding and analysis by researchers affiliated with Virginia universities and industries, identified sufficient potential for offshore winds to meet 10 percent of Virginia's annual electricity demand in high-wind zones 12 miles or more off the coast - beyond the visual horizon - on the outer continental shelf (OCS).

Wind farms in these zones would have minimal conflict with other ocean uses, the researchers say. (More information is available at www.vcerc.org.)

To quantify Virginia's commercially developable offshore wind potential, VCERC researchers identified 25 OCS lease blocks that would not conflict with shipping lanes, Navy live-ordnance training ranges, the Wallops Island space launch zone or dredge spoil disposal sites. These 25 blocks could support 3,200 megawatts of offshore wind-generating capacity, based on a 3-megawatt turbine having a rotor diameter of 90 meters.

Atkinson said researchers in Virginia have learned a lot from offshore wind farms operating in Europe and elsewhere. But he believes that conditions are different enough off the U.S. East Coast to require specific preliminary studies here. "Also, there have been European operation and maintenance issues, and there is a feeling in the U.S. that we need to improve upon the infrastructure you find over there."

This article was posted on: August 18, 2011

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