Pitt Researchers to Tap the Energy Potential of Offshore Wind

Issue Date: 
November 7, 2011

In the search for renewable energy resources, offshore wind power holds tremendous potential for the United States, a country that is not only surrounded by two oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, but also is home to the Great Lakes. However, this type of energy still makes up only a very small proportion of U.S. energy resources.

Now, with a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the University of Pittsburgh and experts from four other influential institutions aim to assess what technological advances are necessary to enhance the power delivery capability from offshore to onshore in order to make the economic value proposition more viable.

“We’ll be looking at a combination of traditional and advanced electric power delivery options—including state-of-the-art power electronics-based transmission technologies, integrating AC and DC power converters, and undersea cable systems—to assess the most effective integration of offshore wind into onshore networks,” says Gregory Reed, Pitt professor of electric power engineering, associate director of the University’s Center for Energy, and director of the Power and Energy Initiative in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

Reed and colleagues at companies ABB, Inc., and Duke Energy and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (part of the DOE) will research existing technologies so they can recommend which new technologies and engineering advancements are necessary to make that integration more efficient and cost effective. Additionally, the group will provide data to produce a road map of the DOE’s goals for the United States, with the primary hope of achieving 54 gigawatts of deployed offshore wind generating capacity by 2030.


One of the benefits of offshore wind energy is that locations with high-wind potential are closer to major population centers. Therefore, the long-distance transmission required to connect wind into the grid from where the higher potentials are on land—say, the Great Plains States of the Midwest—aren’t as much of an issue.

“If we only have to transmit that wind energy 10, 15, 20 miles off the shoreline to the East Coast, where population centers and major networks are located, that alone is saving a tremendous cost as opposed to having huge wind farms in Wyoming, Kansas, or Nebraska, where fewer people live and from where we would have to transmit the energy hundreds, even thousands of miles,” says Reed.

However, notes Reed, the cost of the technology is currently a barrier in some instances: “If you’re in the middle of the ocean dealing with undersea infrastructure and technologies, that’s more complex and expensive than if the windmill is sitting on a mountain ridge connected directly to overhead lines,” he says.

Additional issues to be investigated include the stochastic aspect of wind—that is, its intermittency and inconsistency in reliably generating power at all times and when it is needed. “The potential for reduced intermittency [starting and stopping] from offshore resources could be a benefit,” says Reed.

Finally, the researchers will examine the role of energy storage options as a means to more effectively integrate wind energy. In the case of implementing storage, energy can be harnessed during high-wind periods (i.e., during hurricanes or other harsh weather systems), stored, and then used when demand is at its peak.

Catching up with Europe

The United States currently lags behind Europe in the area of renewable energy generation, including offshore wind. Reed points out that the geographic distances involved and the political organization of the United States make it more difficult to implement renewable energy targets here. “We have to balance state policies with our national objectives,” he says.

Still, Reed sees signs that renewable resources could make up a growing part of America’s energy portfolio. “In most states, and even at a national level, we have some pretty aggressive targets for power generation from renewables between now and 2020, so we’re moving in the right direction,” he says.

The Power and Energy Initiative in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, a major component of the University’s Center for Energy, focuses on partnering to meet industry needs in workforce and technology development through innovative education and collaborative research. The initiative’s electric power research group is engaged in a comprehensive range of activities in the areas of advanced electric power grid technologies and systems, including emerging technology development needs for grid-level power electronics technologies and supporting systems and components for both AC and DC system infrastructures. The group also conducts research in aspects of renewable energy integration, energy storage, and smart-grid applications. For more information, visit www.power.pitt.edu.