Tag Archives: offshore

US underestimates methane emissions from offshore oil and gas platforms

A large part of the United States’ energy comes from oil and natural gas pumped out of the ocean floor. Nearly all extraction currently takes place in the central and western Gulf of Mexico, where thousands of platforms operate in waters up to 6,000 feet deep.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Researchers from the University of Michigan decided to sample the air over the offshore oil and gas platforms to look at their environmental impact, discovering that the platforms are actually emitting twice as much methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, than previously thought.

The study found that oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico emit approximately half a teragram of methane each year, comparable with large emitting oil and gas basins. The effective loss rate of the produced gas is roughly 2.9%, similar to large onshore basins primarily focused on oil.

Offshore harvesting accounts for roughly one-third of the oil and gas produced worldwide, and these facilities both vent and leak methane. Until now, only a handful of measurements of offshore platforms have been made, and no aircraft studies of methane emissions in normal operation had been conducted.

Each year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues its U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory, but its numbers for offshore emissions are not produced via direct sampling. The research from the University of Michigan identified a set of reasons behind the discrepancy between their findings and the ones by the EPA.

There are errors in the platform counts done by the EPA, the researches claimed, having found 1.300 offshore facilities not incorporated in the inventory. At the same time, emissions from shallow-water facilities, especially those focused on natural gas, are higher than inventoried. Eric Kort, a University of Michigan associate professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, said EPA officials are already making adjustments to correct their count of offshore platforms operating in the Gulf of Mexico. But emissions estimates, particularly for shallow waters, still need adjustments.

“We have known onshore oil and gas production often emits more methane than inventoried. With this study we show that this is also the case for offshore production, and that these discrepancies are large,” Kort said. “By starting to identify and quantify the problem, with a particular focus on larger shallow water facilities, we can work towards finding optimal mitigation solutions.”

The researchers took their samples in 2018 using a small research plane with enough room for a pilot and passenger and scientific gear. Tubes along the wings of the plane drew in the air that was pumped to the equipment for analysis of the amount of methane included as well as wind speed.

In addition to 12 individual facilities, the flights also covered larger geographical areas. Flying downwind from clusters of 5 to 70 oil and gas facilities, and taking similar measurements, researchers could evaluate how well inventory estimates compare with large numbers of platforms.

As a pilot study, Kort said the research is promising but has gaps. Greater statistical sampling and identification of the cause of high emissions can guide mitigation and improve reported emissions. To further the work and fill in these gaps, new aerial sampling is in the works. The project, titled Flaring and Fossil Fuels: Uncovering Emissions & Losses (FUEL), will require more flights later over the next three years.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Wind farm.

Europe’s grids will feed primarily from wind farms by 2027, predicts the International Energy Agency

Wind is poised to become the dominant energy source in Europe, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports.

Wind farm.

Image via Pixabay.

Last week, the IEA’s executive director said at the Global Wind Summit that Europe is likely to rely on wind as its primary source of energy by 2027 — and its role in the grid will only increase from then on.

The European Union today draws roughly one-quarter of its energy from nuclear generators. Coal and gas supply a further 20% (one-fifth), with wind generating around 10% of the energy EU countries guzzle up. By 2027, however, the last shall be first, says the IEA.

Forecast: windy

According to its forecasts (document at the end of the article), wind will be the main source of energy for the EU by that year, supplying roughly 23% of total power. Other renewables — such as biomass plants — will contribute around 20%, gas a further 20%, nuclear will fall just shy of 20%, while coal will decline to just about 10%. Solar energy will account for about 6% to 7% in the IEA’s forecasts.

The European Union is already a global leader in wind energy, especially in the offshore wind department. Europe boasts a lot of coasts, and offshore turbines can be larger than their land-locked counterparts. They’re also usually spun by stronger and more consistent winds than the latter. Last year, the EU had 15,780 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind capacity; to reach the IEA’s forecasts, that capacity will have to increase to roughly 200 gigawatts (GW) by 2040, which is quite sizeable.

However, and this is a big “however”, the most exciting thing about the IEA’s forecasts isn’t the wind generation itself — it’s what it would entail. Should their prediction come to pass, the IEA is confident that “ongoing cost declines” associated with wind-generated power would “open prospects for the production of ‘green’ hydrogen” — and green hydrogen has the ability to spark a wide-reaching energy revolution.

Now, the thing about hydrogen today is that it’s mostly produced via natural gas reforming and, because of emissions associated with the production process, it is a net contributor of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One other way you can produce hydrogen, however, is through water electrolysis — the use of an electrical current to split water molecules into their hydrogen and oxygen components.

In the context of abundant energy supplied by wind farms, all that (green) power could be diverted to electrolysis and jump-start a hydrogen revolution. The drain on the grid could be mitigated by mostly running this process at night when demand for electricity is typically low. An ample and steady supply of green-generated, no-emission fuel could finally help ‘greenify’ a sector that’s traditionally resisted attempts to de-couple from fossil fuels: transportation.

“Decarbonization efforts are disproportionally focused on the power sector […] and not enough on heat and transport,” the IEA’s slides said. The agency noted that the electricity sector in the EU “accounts for just 20 percent of energy use.”

The transport sector has been difficult to decarbonize because it’s highly decentralized, and any real effort would have to draw heavily on subsidies and tax breaks (for which political will is very often lacking). But Europe does seem intent on pursuing decarbonization — Germany recently put the world’s first hydrogen-powered train in service. Green hydrogen should definitely help in that regard.

Gone with the wind

With great renewable generation also comes great responsibility to maintain grid integrity, however. There are concerns that solar and wind energy, being more fickle than fossil fuels, could impart significant instability to the grid after prolonged periods without wind or sun. In order to determine how much effort each country needs to put into protecting their grids, the IEA splits them up into distinct ‘phases’ — each depending on how much wind and solar energy goes into a country’s grid makeup.

Phase 1 and Phase 2 countries have so little wind or solar power that they don’t really need to take any precautionary steps. The US, according to the IEA, is currently a Phase 2 country.

Phase 3 countries need to start making significant investments in complementary tech and infrastructure — such as battery storage, flexible power plants, demand management solutions, and advanced grid technology. The UK, Italy, and Germany are examples of Phase 3 countries.

Topping off the chart, Phase 4 countries (like Ireland and Denmark) rely so heavily on solar and wind energy that maintaining grid stability becomes both very challenging and very important. Such countries need to deploy “advanced technologies to ensure grid reliability,” the IEA says.

“As shares of variable renewables rise, more flexible power systems and appropriate market design will be needed for reliable and cost-effective system integration,” the agency writes.

Needless to say, should the EU really draw primarily on renewables by 2027, it will have to invest heavily in such technology and safety systems. GreenTechMedia, however, notes that it’s unclear whether the IEA’s forecast will stay true should Britain actually exit from the European Union. The United Kingdom is currently one of the EU’s major contributors to offshore wind numbers.

The IEA’s forecasts can be seen here (PDF document).


Massachusetts and Rhode Island to build new offshore wind farms totaling 1.2GW

The US is set to build two new — and significant — offshore wind farms.


Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, Denmark.
Image credits Kim Hansen / Flickr.

The states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have both awarded major offshore wind contracts this Wednesday, a testament to the economic shifts that are making this renewable source of energy too attractive to ignore any longer. The two farms will have capacities of 800MW and 400MW, respectively.

Energy from thin air

The Massachusetts installation — christened “Vineyard Wind” — will be constructed in state waters some 14 miles (22.5 km) off of Martha’s Vineyard and is planned to be ready surprisingly fast: the farm is earmarked to start feeding the grid as soon as 2021, reports Green Tech Media. The two companies who won the contract — Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, both based in Europe — will share ownership of the project equally. The two will begin negotiations for transmission services and power purchase agreements shortly, according to a joint press release.

Vineyard Wind comes as part of Massachusetts’ recently-approved goal of building 1.6GW of wind energy by 2027 — and should cover half of that pledged capacity. Overall, it’s expected to reduce the state’s carbon emissions by over 1.6 million tons per year, roughly equivalent to the exhaust of 325,000 cars.

The project is likely to propel further offshore wind development in the area, similarly to what we’ve seen happen in Europe. The port of New Bedford has already been retrofitted to handle the immense load of traffic and infrastructure that development of Vineyard Wind will require, notes the New York Times — which is likely to make further development even more attractive and convenient.

The second contract, awarded by Rhode Island to Deepwater Wind, aims to provide 400MW capacity — although not on such short notice. Construction on the farm, called Revolution Wind, could begin “as soon as 2020” writes Megan Geuss of ArsTechnica, citing a company spokesperson. Deepwater Wind is an US-based firm that has previously collaborated with the state of Rhode Island to built the first offshore wind in the US: the 30MW unit off the coast of Block Island.

The added capacity from this farm will help Rhode Island to reach 1GW of renewable energy by 2020, a goal that state Gov. Gina Raimondo recently called for. Deepwater Wind will also need to start power purchase negotiations and get federal regulatory approval before construction can begin. Revolution Wind, like Vineyard Wind, will be built in state waters.

What’s next?

Block Island offshore.

Aerial view of the Block Island offshore wind farm.
Image credits Ionna22 / Wikimedia.

Judging by what happened in Europe, however, both Massachusetts and Rhode Island stand a lot to gain in the long term from these offshore wind developments. Europe currently hosts roughly 15.7GW of offshore wind, and the experienced energy companies have gleaned here has consistently knocked down installation costs — which made the tech is so attractive even in the US.

Similarly, the early experience and logistical base these two states will gain could provide them with a decisive edge in further offshore developments in the US — which are bound to pop up as installation costs drop. For example, the Department of the Interior recently opened 390,000 acres of federally-controlled waters off the coast of Massachusetts for offshore wind. New Bedford is ideally suited to provide shipping and support for developments here without any further investments — so Massachusetts will surely stand to benefit as more actors join the US offshore wind market.

And more are joining already — the state of New Jersey is also eager to plug its grind into offshore wind farms, with Governor Phil Murphy signing into law a commitment to 3,500 MW, the largest state offshore wind policy to date, on Wednesday, as well. The Union of Concerned Scientists applauds the developments-to-be, writing that these will likely spur states such as Connecticut, New York, Maryland, or Virginia into dipping their toes in offshore wind.

But it’s not just about what states gain. We’ve written before about the benefits renewables bring to local communities. These range from jobs (here and here), air quality improvements, reductions in carbon emissions, and a lower energy bill once the projects are up and running. All good things, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Why the first, tiny offshore wind farm in the U.S. is a huge step forward

The U.S. has finally begun following Europe’s example in green energy with the country’s first offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm, completed last week. While relatively tiny, the farm marks the start of a new American industry, and will feed power into New England’s electric grid.

Image credits Phil Hollman.

It has only five turbines and can power an estimated 17,000 homes — which isn’t much for a power plant of this type. But the inconspicuous Block Island Wind Farm is a U.S-first, and many hope that its example will lead to the creation of a new, cleaner energy industry in the country.

We’ve seen several European countries invest heavily in off-shore wind farms over the past few years, and for good reasons. Installing the turbines offshore is more expensive, but they can harvest the energy of the sea’s strong, steady winds. This means they can produce more power, and produce it more reliably, than their land-locked counterparts. There’s also the advantage of taking the turbines away from populated areas, limiting noise pollution and the risk of accidents.

But the U.S. never got its hands on a piece of this very profitable pie. While European countries were installing these machines by the thousands, proposals in the U.S. faltered due to a lack of expertise in the field (which drove installation costs up), opposition from locals who didn’t want their view of the ocean ruined by the turbines, and a murky legislation about the use of seafloor.

“People have been talking about offshore wind for decades in the United States, and I’ve seen the reaction — eyes roll,” said Jeffrey Grybowski in an interview on Block Island. “The attitude was, ‘It’s not going to happen; you guys can’t do it.’”

Jeffrey Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind of Providence, R.I., has now proved that they can. With backing from the political leadership of Rhode Island, which took up the torch for this newly born industry ahead of bigger states like New York of Massachusetts, the company set up the Block Island Wind Farm.

They’ve also been helped by improving legislative conditions — starting from a law passed by Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has been clarifying the ground rules for off-shore turbine farms. They’ve also been leasing out large patches of ocean floor for wind-power development, so there are nearly two dozen such projects currently in development — setting the stage for the United States to dramatically expand on offshore wind.

Even at state level governments have begun making big pushes towards renewable power, driven by a growing sense of urgency regarding climate change. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York set a goal of drawing 50 percent of the state’s power from renewables by 2030, and the state will probably need large offshore wind farms to help achieve that. Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts also signed a bill ordering the state’s utilities to develop contracts with offshore wind farms for an immense amount of power — 50 times the expected output of the Block Island Wind Farm. Other states, too, are looking to cash in on wind power and the Department of Energy believes that many thousands of these turbines could one day circle the United States coastline.

Right now, the focus in on the Northeast. There are a lot of power-hungry cities here so energy sells well, but there’s fierce opposition to building new power plants on land — thankfully, its coastlines have some of the world’s fiercest winds and the water stays relatively shallow for miles off shore so turbines can be installed where they won’t be seen from the beaches.

The Unites States might also have to profit from the extensive expertise others have on offshore wind turbines. The technology has been proved in Europe, with each turbine now costing up to $30 million to build, install and connect to the power grid. It’s a billion dollar industry, and the companies that install them have developed accordingly. Where European nations once used to promote wind farm by agreeing to sell the power at a premium price, they now use competitive bidding to drive down the cost of the projects. While installation will still be pricier than in Europe because local companies don’t have the technical base and the same know-how, the U.S. will still save a lot of money off of these falling costs — the Block Island turbines were built overseas by a division of General Electric and were installed by a ship from Norway, brought over at a cost of millions of dollars, with help from an American vessel.

The hude Fred Olsen Windcarrier helped install the turbines.
Image credits kees torn / Flickr.

However, if the plans laid down right now follow through, the costs will fall dramatically as domestic industry groups scale up to meet the demand. For the Block Island project, a company in Houma, La., won the contract to build the metal foundations in the water, and several Gulf Coast businesses specialized in offshore oil structures see wind power in the Northeast as a potential new market.

A future being decided right now, with the 5-strong Block Island Wind Farm sending a clear message: the U.S. can be powered without choking our air with smog.

“I do believe that starting small has made sense,” said Bryan Martin, Deepwater Wind’s chairman and D. E. Shaw’s head of United States private equity investment. “I would say that the next projects are going to be substantially bigger.”

Initial financing for the $300 million project came from the D. E. Shaw Group, a big investment firm based in Manhattan. The turbines are locked for now, but they will be turned on sometime in October and after a few weeks of testing and fine-tuning, America’s first offshore wind farm will begin pumping power into the New England electric grid.



Scotland to build giant, floating wind farm

The Scottish government announced that it approved the construction of UK’s first, and the world’s largest floating offshore wind farm.

Image via Scottish Government.

Norwegian energy firm Statoil has been granted a licence for the pilot scheme of six turbines which will have a generation capacity of 135GWh of electricity each year. Unlike land-based wind turbines, the Hywind turbines will be anchored in the seabed, transporting the electricity to the sea shore through buried cables.

“Hywind is a hugely exciting project, in terms of electricity generation and technology innovation, and it’s a real testament to our energy sector expertise and skilled workforce that Statoil chose Scotland for the world’s largest floating wind farm,” said John Swinney, deputy first minister.

This is quite exciting news, especially in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit, which attempts to establish binding agreements for countries in matters related to climate change.

“Floating wind represents a new, significant and increasingly competitive renewable energy source,“ said Irene Rummelhoff, Statoil’s executive vice president for New Energy Solutions. ”Statoil’s objective with developing this pilot park is to demonstrate a commercial, utility-scale floating wind solution, to further increase the global market potential. We are proud to develop this unique project in Scotland, in a region that has optimal wind conditions, a strong supply chain within oil and gas and supportive public policies.”

The world is well on its way of achieving 25% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, not in the least thanks to innovative developments in wind energy such as this one.

Rhode Island goes for offshore energy

In the ever developing struggle for alternative energy, Rhode Island made a significant step towards achieving their goal of fifteen percent offshore energy when they awarded Deepwater Wind the right to build a wind farm that will cost more than 1 billion dollars. This will also give the state more green jobs, as well as make it the new leader for clean power in the US.

Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri says that this will create about 800 jobs that will make about $60 million of annual salary. It is a well known fact that the US gets a really small fraction of their total energy from wind farms (1/100), but many believe that 20 years from now this figure will be significant (30/100) and other alternative sources will appear too.

Along with conservation, wind power could be the key to the problem of America’s low carbon future as a country. Rhode Island is among the states that have a strong portfolio set for 2020, when estimates are that they will get a quarter from their energy from renewable sources.

The federal law makers have resisted the same portfolio set for the whole nation, and the future is still uncertain, as John McCain speaks a lot about offshore wind farms, but his speeches are mostly rhetorical, doing hardly and real estimates. Obama has shown a viable plan to get about a quarter of energy from renewable sources.w