May 21, 2012

Statoil's Maine deepwater floating windmills plan - open webinar May 23rd, 1-3pm

The closing by Big Energy of America's great public and wild commons we call the Gulf of Maine  is underway. Big Renewable Energy, that is.  A virtual meeting of government officials  today will move that process a bit further.

On May 23, 2012, from 1-3pm, a virtual meeting of state and federal bureaucrats (public not invited) will continue consideration of a plan by global energy giant Statoil to set up the world's first deepwater floating windfarm, 12+ miles off Brunswick, Maine. The meeting will be followed at 3pm by a 30 minute public webinar that all are urged to take part in.)  

To take part in the 3 - 3:30pm  webinar:  Use the following dial-in number to participate in this public question and answer session: 1 (877) 972-8773Code: 9556297. To see BOEM description of meeting click here, then scroll to bottom of that page)

Statoil IS being precautionary, in its own vigorous way. Having  launched a full sized  prototype floating wind turbine in 2009 - which shows a respectable 50% capacity factor, the company has decided to apply for permits to  deploy four floating windturbines off Midcoast Maine.  If those are approved and built, what comes after, if those achieve Statoil's expectations,  is of great interest and concern to existing Gulf of Maine natural resource users  and conservationists.

HOW MANY TURBINES? At the 2012 Maine Fishermen's Forum's  offshore windpower seminar,  fishermen asked: how  many turbines  the company might deploy to reach its ultimate goal of 300 to 500 megawatts?  
Note this chart is from DeepCwind Consortium not from Statoil

Mork replied that the number could be up to 90 turbines.  She cautioned however, that as deepwater floating wind technology develops, larger turbines could reduce that number substantially. 

Read a  recent short presentation  (pdf) by Statoil's stakeholder manager about  the company's approach to British fishermen and other stakeholders, concerning a proposed ocean windfarm off the UK.  The presentation suggests the company gives little heed to environmentalists  and conservationists & some heed to fishermen's organizations. But the bulk of its strategic attention by far is, not surprisingly, on negotiating with the agencies who will grant or deny Statoil the necessary permits and licenses.  

While Statoil has experience negotiating with fishermen and other ocean windfarm stakeholders,  Maine fishermen  aren't so pleased by Statoil's approach.  At the 2012 Maine Fishermen's Forum's  offshore windpower seminar, Portland tuna fishermen Chris Weiner  spoke of  his concern that Statoil was not engaging with his industry( 6 minute mp3) 

WHAT'S AT ISSUE?  Even though windmills do not extract hydrocarbons, they are still extractive industries. Ask the wind industry itself, spending millions to finance studies figuring out how far apart to spread ocean turbines to minimize the "wind shadow" impact of each windturbine's energy extraction activity on the turbines downwind of it.  On the larger scale, too: figuring out  the windshadow impact of each ocean windfarm on neighboring ocean windfarms is critical. 

It is fine to maximize  extraction of wind energy, but what effects do these offshore windshadows  have or the inhabitants of the aqueous environment underneath the ocean turbines?  Research on both sides of the Atlantic suggests  that the impact could be substantial

First,  read  On the Influence of Large Wind farms on the upper ocean circulation.  by Göran Broström, Norwegian Meteorological Institute in Oslo, Norway.  Broström describes how these artificially generated wind shadows translate into changes in  vertical water column movement, potentially disrupting local currents - an issue of major import for the Gulf of Maine, as most commercially important species spend part of their lives migrating along Maine's coastal currents.
Next,  learn why unhindered ocean currents are  important in the Gulf of Maine.  Consider University of New Hampshire professor James Pringle's 2007 paper  What is the windage of zooplankton? Turbulence avoidance and the wind-driven transport of plankton.

Pringle shows that migrating zooplankton avoid surface turbulence by dropping below it.   But dropping below a certain depth will take the plankton out of those surface currents and result in it settling in that location instead of proceeding on to the normal end of its migration.

A question for Statoil: Given that Dr Brostrom showed that ocean windfarms can cause turbulence and water column destratification extending over a fairly large area, will the Statoil's own project induce premature settlement of zooplanktonic lobster and scallop larvae, or their prey species in their windpark's vicinity?

Will that reduce commercial fisheries downcurrent of ocean windparks off the coast of Maine? While Statoil's planned 4 turbines likely will not, it is believed that they will demonstrate the effect on a small scale. It will be critical to use those results, if any, to extrapolate the potential impacts to zooplankton-carrying currents when planning the utility scale windparks that Statoil ultimately proposes to set up , in the Gulf of Maine or elsewhere

WHERE THINGS STAND Happily, Statoil's  Kari Hege Mork has agreed with a request from Penobscot Bay Watch to have her company look into this ocean currents/floating deepwater turbines question.   At least, Statoil will consult with state and federal agencies and others on whether to review this issue in depth.  Let us hope that Statoil relies more on the academics than on the permitting agencies when doing this evaluation, as permit reviewers are under political pressure to bring ocean windpower extraction to the Gulf of Maine, and will be loath to examine additional issues such as the one that Brostrom revealed..

Statoil's  Hywind Maine's project manager Kristin Asmodt recently reminded us that, "one of the benefits of floating offshore wind is that there is more flexibility on placement of the turbines (e.g. can be placed further from shore in less conflicting areas)"

Let us hope that one of the things Statoil is willing to be flexible about is looking after the best interests of the Gulf of Maine's larval fishes and shellfishes. These are utterly dependent on reliable Gulf of Maine currents.

 If Statoil commits to studying the potential impacts of their new technology on zooplankton-sensitive currents during this 4 turbine  prototype phase - and  if it discovers that the water column destratification does occur as Brostrom predicts, the company could set a standard of ecological review of full deepwater wind projects that other deepwater windpower  applicants around the world will be pressured to follow. 

Time will tell.

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