By Alex Bandza, Summer MAP Sustainable Energy Fellow for the Energy Future Coalition
The major energy policy controversy in Congress this year had to do with lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling. The more important issue, however, is not whetherwe drill offshore, but what we drill offshore. Offshore wind energy has a technical production potential of nearly 900 gigawatts along our coasts, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) – the equivalent of 250 giant new power plants. Although the capacity factor may be lower than that, offshore wind could go a long way towards meeting new energy demand in the next few decades.
Conversely, estimates from the DOE find that offshore oil drilling on the outer continental shelf will increase domestic petroleum supply by less than 2% by 2030. As it is, domestic supply meets less than half of our consumption today, and DOE predicts this number will not improve by 2030. A paltry increase of our own oil production 20 years from now would have an insignificant effect on oil prices.
The question of what to develop offshore is not limited to one answer. Even offshore wind energy deployment en masse could exist alongside offshore oil rigs, and wind turbines are likely to be sited much closer to shore. However, the scale of the solution is far greater in offshore wind, especially when a price on carbon makes carbon-free energy, like offshore wind, financially more attractive.
Wind energy onshore has shown explosive growth in the U.S. in the past few decades, serving as the linchpin for many energy policy plans that emphasize renewables like the 25x’25 renewable energy initiative and the Pickens Plan. Onshore wind is in many areas becoming competitive with coal and natural gas, and the U.S. has enormous onshore wind potential. The problem is getting the energy from where the wind blows most (e.g., the Great Plains) to where energy is most needed (e.g., cities), which will require hundreds of miles of transmission lines.
The amount of wind energy available along our coasts is even larger and more reliable than the onshore resource. Even better, it lies just a fraction of the distance away from the areas where demand is heaviest, reducing the need for cross-country transmission infrastructure. Although transmission investment will still be required, the distance required to connect offshore wind is much smaller than moving energy generated from onshore wind installations in the Great Plains to the coasts.
These two offshore options would have very different impacts on two different sectors-offshore wind would significantly increase our electricity capacity, whereas offshore drilling would target the transportation sector. However, the growing call for electrification of the transportation sector, especially through deployment of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, would blur the line between grid and garage.
Regardless of the final verdict on offshore drilling, Congress and the next President should seize the opportunity to make long-term commitments to increase renewable energy. As we look for ways to make all our energy sources more secure and less carbon-intensive, the difference in potential between the two could not be starker. Offshore drilling could make a minor contribution to reducing U.S. oil imports at some time in the future, but offshore wind deployment, coupled with electrification of the transportation sector, could be the win-win economic and environmental opportunity we’ve been waiting for.
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