Jul 21, 2010

Ocean Energy Institute opens as debate grows on ocean windfarms' climate-changing impacts.

Rockland. To the skirling strains of a bagpiper in regalia, a cheerful crowd tramped in and out of the refurbished 4th floor of the Van Baalen building on Tuesday afternoon, where a grand opening and open house offered by the new Ocean Energy Institute resounded with lively discussions of how many kilowatts, megawatts and even terawatts of energy might be stripped from the Gulf of Maine's ocean winds. Ocean Energy Institute managing director Robert West and  founder Matt Simmons were on hand fielding questions.  Listen to a six minute interview with West.

But even as the volume rose to a dull roar, and black-clad staff efficiently guided and catered to the wants of the many guests, something was conspicuously missing from the discourse.

 For there was scarcely  a word spoken on the effect that the 24/7 removal of all those billions of watts of energy from the Gulf of Maine's energy environment by offshore wind mills would have on the marine ecology and thus the fishing & tourism economy of the Gulf. 

An invitation-only reception Tuesday morning had brought 120 people together with Institute founder Matt Simmons, Governor Baldacci, Speaker Hannah Pingree, and staffers from Maine's congressional delegation. Here again, jobs, power and prestige were the topics of discussion; the Gulf of Maine itself was again reduced to a magic cornucopia whose energy could be exploited without concern for the natural ecosystems being de-energized.

In the race by energy companies to cash on  lavish grants and  subsidies being offered to ocean wind startups by American and Canadian governments, some fear the negative effects of this newest extractive industry are being swept under the rug.

This despite the potential  risks to Maine's lobster and herring industries and to  coastal trouism that could stem from the powerful impacts of large ocean windfarms on the winds and currents of the Gulf of Maine. A tiny slowing of the Eastern Maine Coastal Current, for example, could delay larval lobsters from being transported to their juvenile nurseries off Penobscot Bay at the same time as their plankton prey species hatch there leading to local year class failures of the important crustacean. As lobsters are captured in these waters, they would not be replaced, leading to a steady decline. The constant upwelling of cold water in summer and warm water in winter by the pressure differential ocean windfarms could blanket the coast and nearshore waters with year-round  tourist-repelling fog banks.

Yet while American and Canadian wind energy researchers and entrepreneurs  seem to discount their industrial's own increasingly discernible  role in climate change, across the Atlantic  increasingly loud alarms are being sounded by their European counterparts, who for the past decade have  documented first hand the effect of ocean windfarms on the environment off their shores. They don't like what they are seeing. 

Chief among scientists raising concerns is  Dr. Goran  Brostrøm , senior researcher at the  Norwegian Meteorological Institute.  In " Windmills at sea will affect the climate"  Brostrøm  warned : 
"The atmosphere does not contain an unlimited amount of wind energy. Windmills tap the atmosphere's energy, and this may have consequences for climate and ocean circulation. These  issues are not taken sufficiently into account in the current discussion about the placement of wind farms offshore....It is also likely that many windfarms combined would provide a stronger effect on climate and marine environment than wind farms will provide if they are studied separately."  

"These studies must be done now," Brostrøm wrote, "before wind farms are built. It must be considered what are positive and negative effects on the environment, and we need to describe these effects as detailed as we are able to today."  

He said that ocean windmills have "a powerful impact on the local ocean currents, and probably on the amount of phytoplankton that can grow in the ocean. Windmill parks will affect the wind field over an area much larger than the parks themselves, and the effects on the ocean will also apply to an area much larger than the size of the park."

See Brostrøm 's research paper "On the influence of large wind farms on the upper ocean circulation." (pdf)  for more details. Brostrøm 's findings were echoed by Dutch researchers Gustave Corten and Arno J. Brand  of  ECN Wind Energy.  In a recent report, "Resource Decrease by Large Scale Wind Farming", Corten and Brand similarly note that  when windfarms add  "roughness" to the otherwise smooth sea surface, a significant fraction of wind energy is lost by the natural environment: 

"Wind resource estimates, especially offshore, are based on the situation without the presence of the planned  farms. We show that the wind resource will drop by 5-14% when we account for roughness increase that will occur when large farms are installed offshore."

Penobscot Bay Watch director Ron Huber, who  monitors midcoast Maine nearshore and offshore wind industry efforts, said he is disappointed that the head of the US offshore windfarming R&D effort, University of Maine's professor Habib Dagher, has opted to ignore the European wind researchers warnings. At the May 20th Maine Windpower Forum in Rockport Maine, Dagher brushed off questions on this topic, stating: "The scientific community doesn't take that very seriously."  

"Matt Simmons's Ocean Energy Institute and Dr Dagher's  DeepCwind Consortium both need to keep a brake on their ambitions," Huber said,  "Honest, open public calculation of  the possible negatives of offshore windfarms needs to be presented concurrently with the positives. To do otherwise risks imperiling Maine's fisheries and coastal communities through failed communication."

Huber has unsure if the Ocean Energy Institute will do so - Simmons' business plan for his Institute includes budding off a for-profit holding company to acquire and consolidate existing renewable energy companies; an entity that would tend to accelerate the pace of offshore wind exploitation here by sheer political power, not slow it down. 

But, "having met briefly with OEI's managing director Robert West, I am cautiously optimistic they will be open to full disclosure of potential impacts of projects the Ocean Energy Institute takes on." Huber said.  Huber is also hopeful that  DeepCwind's Habib Dagher will accept the solidifying scientific consensus that ocean wind energy extraction affects the weather of the surrounding environment.  "Dr. Dagher is an intelligent man, too" Huber said.  "I think he'll come around."

"In any event, my lawsuit contesting DeepCWind's license to operate off Monhgan Island has, I think, focused his attention. 

"When carrots don't work, sometimes you must use a stick." he said.

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