Technology can help transition away from fossil fuels: The case of wind energy

Technology can help transition away from fossil fuels: The case of wind energy

Amit Batabyal, Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics in the Rochester Institute of Technology

There is now incontrovertible evidence that global warming is real and that humans have played a non-trivial role in giving rise to this phenomenon. As such, it is no surprise to learn that public policy is increasingly focused on getting Americans to transition out of fossil fuels — that cause global warming by combustion — and into clean forms of energy.

Wind energy is one of these clean forms of energy and it is now one of the fastest growing energy sources in the world. This is because there are many advantages to generating electricity using wind. Consider just a few:

  • First, wind power creates many, well-paying jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 120,000 people working in the wind industry in the U.S.
  • Second, wind power is a domestic energy source that does not require human dependence (by unsavory middle eastern governments for instance).
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, wind power is both a clean and renewable source of energy.

Wind turbines capture energy from the wind utilizing mechanical power to spin a generator and thereby create electricity. It is worth emphasizing again that wind is both an abundant and an inexhaustible resource that helps us produce electricity without burning any fossil fuels or polluting the atmosphere.

That said, one salient problem with harnessing wind power in the U.S. is that some of the strongest winds are offshore. In principle, this ought not to be a problem because one can construct wind turbines by directly building them into the seafloor. However, northern California has some of strongest offshore winds and yet we cannot build offshore turbines to harness them. This is because the continental shelf drops off rather quickly as one moves outwards into the Pacific Ocean, making it prohibitively costly or technologically impossible to build wind turbines directly on the sea floor.

This is where new technology comes in. As pointed out by Matthew Lackner and others, it is now possible to construct wind turbines that float. In fact, on December 7, 2022, Uncle Sam auctioned off five lease areas about 20 miles off the California coast to firms seeking to develop floating wind “farms.”

Just like on-land or on the sea floor turbines, wind pushes on the blades in a floating turbine, causing a rotor to turn, and this drives a generator to produce electricity. The significant difference is that instead of the turbine’s tower being fixed in the ground or on the sea floor, the floating wind turbine sits on a platform and this platform has mooring lines that anchor it to the seabed. These same mooring lines keep the turbine in place against the wind and are connected to the cables that transport the electricity to shore.

There are three main types of platforms and their technical details need not concern us here. What is important, though, is that some of these platforms can be readily assembled onshore and then towed out to the ocean for installation. This means that such floating platforms are far cheaper to install than fixed platforms that are embedded into the sea floor.

According to government estimates, once built, wind farms in the five leased areas off the California coast could produce enough clean electricity to power 1.5 million homes. This is but one example of the kind of technological breakthroughs we need and are likely to see more of as we transition away from fossil fuels and thereby ensure that our planet remains habitable for future generations of Americans.

Batabyal is the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics and the interim head of the Sustainability Department, booth at RIT, but these views are his own.