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What is Offshore Wind Energy?

Matt Brady
Matt Brady

Offshore wind energy is an alternative method of generating electricity. It involves the operation of massive offshore wind turbines that, when turned by the wind, transport electricity back to shore. Experimentation with wind energy has been around for at least a century, but it wasn't until the early 2000s that the implementation of modern-day wind turbines began to hit a respectable stride. Since then, wind projects have grown in spades, including both offshore and on-land wind energy operations.

The benefit of offshore wind energy, as opposed to onshore, is that the open ocean contains far fewer wind blocks than land. This allows for much more consistent energy production. The obstacle to offshore wind farms is that it can be more difficult to build transmission lines capable of safely and effectively bringing the energy to land.

An offshore wind farm.
An offshore wind farm.

The lack of objects and landmarks to curtail the wind, coupled with the high frequency with which winds blow over the ocean, adds up to remarkable potential for offshore wind energy to one day make a significant contribution to the world's electricity usage. Of course, there are also onshore sites with heavy winds and flat landscapes, but such places can't compete with the vast, flat, wide-open oceanscape. Offshore wind is also desirable because project developers don't have to work around cities and residential areas.

As of the late 2000s, onshore and offshore wind energy only amounted to a tiny fraction of the world's generated electricity, but the potential for future wind energy production is extremely high. In theory, the total amount of wind in the world could produce at least as much as the world's current electricity needs, but achieving that would require a far more sophisticated wind energy system than currently exists. Burgeoning wind technologies and high levels of government and corporate support have allowed for an all-time high production of offshore wind energy. Eco-conscious nations such as Denmark helped blaze the way, but today the U.S., Europe, Canada and Asia have all implemented sizable wind energy programs.

Offshore wind energy production takes some heavy backing to implement, as there are numerous snags to overcome. For one, developers have to implement a way to transmit generated electricity back to shore for use in cities and neighborhoods. This involves developing power lines which can safely and efficiently transmit that energy. Projects have been in development that, if successful, would revolutionize offshore transmission by funneling electricity into one large backbone rather than dozens of smaller radial lines.

There are numerous offshore wind farms throughout the world. In the U.S., the first American offshore wind farm, Cape Wind, began development in 2010 off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. England's Thanet Wind Farm, one of the world's largest, became operational in 2010. Denmark also boasts some of the world's largest offshore wind farms, including Horns Rev 1 and Horns Rev 2. Offshore wind farms can also be found off the shores of Ireland, Germany, Sweden and China.

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    • An offshore wind farm.
      An offshore wind farm.