U.S. explores ocean winds, waves, currents as new energy sources

Wind turbines.
Wind turbines. Jill Johnson / Fort Worth Star-Telegram

WASHINGTON — A year after a bitter congressional fight over offshore drilling for oil and gas, the Bush administration wants to tap the ocean's winds, waves and currents for alternative energy.

The plans could mean that within a few years, towering wind turbines could start spinning off North Carolina's Outer Banks to harness the gusts that have tossed ships out there for centuries. Other turbines could capture energy from tides and waves beneath San Francisco Bay and the Tacoma Narrows, or Gulf Stream currents off the Florida coast.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Monday that the 1.8 billion acres of the federal Outer Continental Shelf could become "a new frontier" for the nation's energy resources.

His remarks came a year after Congress argued over whether to open up much of the nation's federal waters to drilling for oil or gas. Those proposals, ultimately shot down, brought strong opposition from environmental groups and some state governments.

Now the administration has found some common ground with environmental groups in the push for wind- and water-generated energy.

"We wouldn't give blanket approval for these things, but the bar would have to be high for us to reject it," said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club in Washington. "There's a lot of wind offshore. Finding ways to tap that would be excellent."

The federal government is entertaining bids beginning this week for companies to put testing equipment, such as meteorological towers, in ocean waters to gather data on wind, wave or current energy.

Kempthorne said the agency was farthest along in understanding how to capture wind energy.

The Interior Department, which governs federal land, figures that 70 percent of the ocean's wind power could be found in the Mid-Atlantic states in waters less than 200 feet deep.

From Delaware to North Carolina, experts think they can harness enough of the south and southwesterly prevailing winds to supply energy for 50 million homes.

The sight of rows of spinning wind turbines has become common in flat, blustery locales such as Oklahoma and the hills of California. If Interior's plan comes to fruition, they could be seen offshore as well.

"Wind is a lot steadier and stronger offshore," Dorner said. "You can put some really massive turbines out there."

The federal waters of the Outer Continental Shelf begin three miles offshore and run to 200 nautical miles. The placement of wind turbines would depend on a variety of factors, including wind resources and environmental impacts.

National park and historical sites would be off limits, as would some fisheries.

It's unclear, though, how much say individual states would have on the placement of offshore energy facilities in federal waters.

Randall Luthi, the director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service, said states would be consulted. But he said the Interior Department wouldn't know until next spring, when it issues its final rule on offshore wind energy, how states might be involved.

"As a rule, we've been very cautious about moving against a strong state interest," Luthi said.

The agency issued an environmental impact statement on its alternative energy plan Monday. The Minerals Management Service report, running some 1,500 pages, details potential resources and the possible environmental impacts that energy facilities could have around the country.

Off Florida's east coast, the agency says, most of the potential for subsurface current energy can be found in the Gulf Stream flowing northward. There, capturing just one-thousandth of the Gulf Stream's energy could supply a third of the Sunshine State's energy, Kempthorne said.

Research already is under way in Florida on using the ocean waters for energy. Florida Atlantic University, which has established an ocean energy technology center, hopes to drop a prototype turbine in the Gulf Stream by early next year to measure the feasibility of the project.

"We're hoping to make ocean energy a baseline power source for Florida," said Gabriel Alsenas, an ocean engineer at FAU.

Environmentalists said they saw the emerging technology as "very promising."

"We're certainly more excited about Interior exploring those energy sources than the same old drill-anywhere-and-everywhere," said Mark Ferrulo, the director of Environment Florida.

Wave energy has the most potential on the Pacific Coast, between Washington state and Northern California, Interior officials said Monday.

If just 15 percent of the nation's wave energy were harvested, Kempthorne said, it could supply 22 million homes.

Many local utilities already have been searching for alternative energy sources.

In Washington state, state agencies are working to develop regulations as utilities scout out potential renewable energy resources.


The report by the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service.

(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)