Debates over new sources of energy revolve around trade-offs—and those tradeoff are becoming increasingly desperate. From “drill, baby, drill,” to fracking to the Alberta tar sands commentators tell us that we must accept dirtier and dirtier and riskier and riskier solutions to fulfilling our energy needs.
A headline on Forbes.com over the weekend caught my (and more than 25,000 other people’s) attention, “Fracking Does Contaminate Groundwater: Carry on Drilling Regardless.” Tim Worstall contends that fracking should “carry on” despite the contamination of aquifers, because the environmental impacts are priced into the royalties of those most effected—the people whose land gets fracked. And besides, we collectively as a society need the cheap energy more than the clean water (at least more than some people’s clean water). Tim is entitled to his opinion, but saying that the true costs—social, environmental and long term—are priced into the royalties is like saying that the price of gasoline at the pump takes climate change and sea level rise into account—of course they don’t.
What are we waiting for to get to the really innovative ideas? There must be solutions with less severe tradeoffs than shale gas and tar sands oil. Why lock ourselves in to processes that will only get dirtier, riskier and more expensive over time rather than ones that will build sustainable equity and reduce long-term energy costs—and environmental impacts. Why continue to procrastinating the inevitable?
I met a man in Portland, Maine, this summer who’s not waiting around to find out. Dr. Habib Dagher is founding Director of the Advanced Structures & Composites Center, a National Science Foundation funded research Center based at theUniversity of Maine, Orono. Habib was in Portland to deliver a talk at our own homegrown TED conference,TEDxDirigo. Among the 125 R&D projects he has conducted in his 25 years at the Center, the most exciting is a plan to deploy huge offshore wind farms in the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine the could power the entire State by 2030—with an equal amount of energy left over to sell to our neighbors. That plan was the subject of his talk that day.
Dagher lays out the economic argument first. At $4 a gallon for gasoline, $5 Billion leaves the State of Maine every year. Our entire state budget is only $3.1 Billion. In 1998, energy represented 5% an average Maine family’s budget. Ten years later it was up to 20% and by 2018 he predicts it will consume 40% of an average family’s budget. Even without pricing in global warming or sea level rise, this is a shocking—and unsustainable—number.
What is the greatest opportunity to replace fossil fuels in this country? According to Habib, it’s offshore wind. One of his slides shows a map of wind energy in the United States and the largest concentration is off the far northeast coast. He has calculated that there are 149 gigawatts of wind within 50 nautical miles of the coast of Maine. That’s the equivalent of 149 nuclear power plants—with no risk of meltdowns!
The really interesting thing is that Maine turns out to be in a sweet spot for wind energy. We are far enough up the coast to be out of range of hurricanes, but close enough to the urban centers of the northeast, where 18% of the U.S. population lives, for there to be an efficient market for the excess energy we can produce. Dagher says, “there’s an opportunity for us to not only take care of ourselves, but create electrons in Maine and sell them, just like we sell paper and lobsters.”
Europe has had offshore wind farms since the early 90s, but all of the development has been in shallow waters, unlike the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine. So Dagher has used his Yankee ingenuity and come up with a truly innovative solution to erecting really big wind turbines in deep waters. He proposes to partner with and transform the Maine shipbuilding industry into a floating turbine industry. Simply put, the 300 ft tall towers can be built in dry docks at shipbuilding facilities, like Bath Iron Works, and then floated out into position. Once in position, the underwater columns are filled with water and anchored to the sea floor with giant suction cups and tension cables.
This may sound far fetched and fanciful but it’s very real and moving forward. The project has won funding from the Department of Energy and Dagher’s group is working with a consortium of 35 companies—many of them based in Maine. The first prototype turbines—the first floating turbines off the coast of the U.S.—will be installed off historic Monhegan Island this July. The first wind farm, with five floating turbines, will be completed by 2017 and a larger 500 megawatt farm (half the strength of a nuclear power plant) by 2020. This farm will be located 20 miles offshore so that the curvature of the earth will prevent it from being visible from shore and will contain 100 5MW turbines in a grid four by eight miles wide. By 2030 they plan to expand the grid of turbines tenfold, which would be enough to power the entire state and have 2.5 GW to sell. This is a $20 billion plan that could create 18,000 jobs.
The UK is embarked on a similarly ambitious plan to build 30 GW of fixed-based offshore wind by 2020, but Habib thinks we, in Maine and in the U.S. in general, have an advantage, “We’re going to float these things and beat them on cost and beat them on efficiency.” What could be a $20 billion business in Maine by 2030 could be a $200 billion business in the U.S., that could add 125,000 new jobs. And the cost differential between floating them 20 miles offshore from a domestic shipyard vs. 7,000 miles from China makes this a fairly Asia-proof business as well.
What’s the content connection here? All future tech is an exercise in speculative fiction. Turn the Peter Thiel funded Seasteading Institute‘s plans for floating, libertarian islands into empires of wind and the science fiction wheels go crazy. But what made my mind race when I heard Habib speak was imagining what kind of society we could build if we were not spending so much of working people’s wages on energy. How much more support we could give education, infrastructure, the arts, social welfare and new technologies? How much more productive we could be without the burden of punitive energy prices? And the technology to make that happen is not coming from Silicon Valley, Boulder, Atlanta or even Cambridge, but from the innovators in Maine.