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Seattle Company Floats Idea for Floating Wind Farms

The ocean is becoming the new frontier for renewable energy experiments. The ocean offers wide open spaces and stronger winds than are available on land. Energy developers in Europe already have planted more than two dozen wind farms in shallow offshore waters. But along most of the world's coastlines, it gets too deep too fast to put a turbine tower on a solid foundation.

That hasn't deterred energy developer Alla Weinstein. Her company, Principle Power, is trying to do something never done before: namely build a floating wind farm.

"We actually are not [re-]inventing the wheel," the Russian-born engineer says, "We are reusing the wheel."

The wind farm proposal marries two existing technologies.

"The wheels that we are reusing are the offshore platforms that were developed for the offshore oil industry and also the [wind] turbines that have been developed first for use on land."

Getting coastal communities on board

Weinstein and her project managers have been traveling up and down the Oregon coast, presenting their plans at community meetings. The company wants to build local support for its proposal to moor 30 giant wind turbines offshore, each on its own floating platform anchored to the sea bottom. The turbines would bob about 15 kilometers offshore, right around the edge of the horizon as seen from the beach. The presenters dangle the prospect of local jobs and perhaps royalty payments to support community improvements.

After listening to the details at a meeting in the postcard-pretty town of Manzanita, Oregon, local architect Tom Bender speaks out against what he calls "industrialization of the ocean."

"The red lights on these things... These 400-500-foot-tall towers obviously have flashing red lights. You get that on a foggy evening; the entire sky is pulsing red lights."

But Danish naval officer Frants Poulsen, who retired to Manzanita, comes to an opposite conclusion.

"A windmill is a beautiful machine. They have been with humans for 10,000 years, and it contributes to preserving our planet."

Fishermen are another constituency to assuage. Charter boat captain Jon Brown foresees less disruption from the offshore wind farm than from proposed wave energy parks nearer to shore.

"I much rather have wind energy 10 miles offshore than wave energy right by the beach," he says. "Yeah, no question about that."

The cost of wind power offshore

Still in question is whether the price of the electricity from an offshore wind farm will be affordable. Another Seattle-based company prepared an estimate in connection with a combination wave and wind energy platform it proposed to build off the coast of Washington State. Burt Hamner, president of Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company, says it is expensive.

"It'll cost twice as much per megawatt - or twice as much per unit of energy - to produce the power offshore as it will onshore. The reality, though, is that in many places, there's nowhere else to get that much energy onshore."

The Principle Power folks insist their electricity will be priced competitively with other sources of new renewable energy. The Seattle company recently signed a contract with Portugal's biggest electric company. They plan to moor the world's first floating wind farm in the east Atlantic. The project would start with a single demonstration platform launching in 2011. The project on the Oregon coast would come second.

Meanwhile, several European competitors in the wind energy sector have conceptual designs for their own floating wind turbines.