Long considered adversaries, the wind and fossil fuel industries have more in common than you think. By Simon Mahan

Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012

wind farm copyOften times renewable energy and petroleum production appear to be opposing forces. Renewable energy proponents frequently castigate the oil industry, and oil advocates strike back. Contrary to popular belief, both of these industries can prove beneficial to each other. Perhaps the best example of this new common ground between old enemies is the offshore oil and offshore wind power industries.

Offshore wind farms are not a new concept; Denmark installed its first offshore wind farm in 1991, and Europe has been leading the way in offshore wind development since then. Many offshore wind farms, made up of dozens or hundreds of individual wind turbines, are planned along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and in the Great Lakes. These turbines require much of the same know-how used in the offshore oil industry.

Wind, wave, salt and rust all impact turbines and rigs alike, and specialized engineers dutifully take into account the physics, chemistry and biology that assault man-made structures in the marine environment. Keystone Engineering, an oil engineering firm here in Louisiana, was recently selected in a consortia to help design offshore wind turbine foundations for Cape Wind, America’s first offshore wind farm.

Also here in Louisiana, Blade Dynamics has opened up a blade manufacturing facility in New Orleans to service the onshore and offshore wind markets. These blades borrow from the aeronautical industry to be extremely aerodynamic as well as from the yacht building industry for fiberglass molding and fabrication.

Installing offshore wind turbines is not an easy task. Specialized turbine installation vessels must be able to safely transfer crews and technology while serving as a platform for stable operation. Just a few years ago, SEMCO, a shipbuilder here in Louisiana, constructed two of these multi-million dollar specialty vessels for the European offshore wind industry.

Oil workers in the regulatory sector of the industry will provide invaluable insight, not only with navigating the Jones Act, which wind farm developers will be required to adhere to, but nearly all regulatory activities dealing with offshore wind farm development. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management regulates both offshore oil and offshore wind development. Formerly called the Minerals Management Service, the agency manages most areas three miles offshore and further, and not just minerals anymore.

Certainly, not all offshore oil workers can easily transition into the wind industry (wind turbines do not require blow-out preventers, for example). Yet, wind can offer something that petroleum just cannot: certainty. It is not likely in our lifetimes, but petroleum will eventually run out or become too expensive to drill. Meanwhile, the wind has always been, and will always be, a free fuel that will last forever. Perhaps it should not be too much of a surprise then that oil companies like Shell and BP have invested fairly heavily in onshore wind farm development here in the U.S. Wind power can offer a future for oil workers, and oil workers can offer decades of experience to wind farm development. Recognizing and respecting the synergies of these two industries can help Louisiana lead the way to a better energy future.  

A Lafayette resident, Simon Mahan is a renewable energy manager for Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

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