Expert Voices

Why Coastal Winds Could Power Every U.S. Home, and Car (Op-Ed)

Oregon coast with fog.
Fog lends a creepy air to the Oregon coast in this 2009 image. (Image credit: Michael Theberge, NOAA)

Jeff Nesbit was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit contributed the article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

There is a massive, untapped energy reserve that could power the entire energy grid in America and electrify every, single car. It's available right now, and could transform the United States into a global energy leader overnight, giving the nation's political leaders hope for dealing with looming climate impacts.

It isn't Bakken, or the Canadian oil sands via Keystone , or Powder River Basin coal, or natural gas seams via hydraulic fracturing.

It's the wind blowing gently, and intermittently, 10 miles offshore along the Outer Continental Shelf in the Atlantic Ocean and around America's other two coasts.

The truth is that there is enough wind blowing around all three coasts of America to power the entire energy grid in the country — many times over.

Along the Eastern seaboard alone, along the Outer Continental Shelf, there is enough wind energy to handle the entire peak load of electricity on the East Coast, and electrify every single car there, as well. (Elon Musk and Tesla, take note.)

It's a difficult concept to grasp because the world's most profitable industries — based on extracting fossil-fuel-based energy like oil, coal and natural gas — have spent a small fortune convincing you and every other voter in the country that there is only one way to power America's future.

It isn't true. There is, in fact, another way.

Yes, natural gas is cheap. So is coal. Utilities constantly monitor the market prices of both in order to decide which to use to provide the cheapest form of energy for their consumers.

And, for now, it is also cheaper to use oil in cars — though companies like Tesla are rapidly changing that equation.

But the raw numbers and data about this great, virtually untapped source of endless energy — wind power — blowing gently (and occasionally not so gently) off America's coastlines are incredibly compelling. They are also largely unknown to the American public.

Here are those numbers. The average load for the entire energy grid in the United States is 450 gigawatts. (For reference, a gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts.) That's what it takes to power pretty much everything you and everyone else owns.

Data analysts have sorted through the total offshore-wind capacity based on current technology — which, by the way, is changing and transforming even as I write this, and would only accelerate with a concerted, national focus. The total offshore wind resource is 4,000 gigawatts, or more than eight times greater than what we need for the entire country.

But wind is intermittent — it doesn't blow in the same place, at the same rate, all of the time — so analysts have taken that into account to determine the average from that overall capacity. That's about a 40 percent "capacity factor" — meaning that you can count on 40 percent of that overall total as an energy source.

That means that 1,600 gigawatts from offshore wind farms — or four times all of our energy needs — are readily available to meet the average energy load of 450 gigawatts. And the wind doesn't stop blowing or run out. We don't have to go dig up more of it from ever-more difficult places in dangerous parts of the world.

Since the waters are shallower along the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) along the East Coast and the regulations are well defined, it will be easier to develop Eastern Seaboard wind farms first. It's important to note, however, that research is rapidly under way to determine the best way to develop farms along the Gulf and West Coasts as well.

The average demand on the East Coast for electricity, and to power the entire vehicle fleet with electricity, is 102 gigawatts. The total "developable resource" along the OCS from North Carolina to Massachusetts (places where seven-megawatt turbine wind farms can be built where no one sees them, aren't in shipping lanes or places where birds migrate) is 330 megawatts, or triple what everyone needs.

In short, we have three times as much energy capacity as we'll ever need to power everything we need on the East Coast — just 10 miles offshore along the OCS. We have big, new, efficient seven-megawatt wind turbines being built in U.S. cities providing thousands of jobs — and the potential to provide many more thousands of jobs in the future. And it's an endless source of energy that will never run out.

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This is what's possible. It's an endless source of renewable energy, which the utility companies could develop and own all by themselves as a crown jewel in America's energy transformation.

But it requires vision, and an understanding of how old industries are upended by innovation and opportunity and how new ones replace them in rapid fashion. It requires governors to work with national officials to provide leadership, direction and collaboration so that wind-power transmission can be swapped back and forth across state lines. It requires private venture and hedge funds to spur innovation that make big wind turbines and transmission technology even more efficient. And it requires utilities to recognize the bold future right in front of them.

Those who say that a rapid energy transformation in America isn't possible are ignoring even recent history. Google got its first million dollars from the U.S. National Science Foundation in the mid-1990s as a result of a digital library grant to Stanford University. Less than a decade later, the digital information and Internet age had upended multiple industries.

With a national commitment and certainty in the marketplace, the cost of wind power per kilowatt hour could be cut in half almost overnight, making it competitive with cheap fossil-fuel energy sources right now.

With market pressure and a national commitment to a renewable energy future based on wind power that creates certainty and demand, the manufacturing and transmission infrastructure will accelerate rapidly. To believe otherwise is to ignore real marketplace dynamics and recent history in the information, Internet, software and high-technology computing industries in America.

Such an energy transition wouldn't be easy, or cheap, initially. But it is possible. And, very soon thanks to looming climate impacts, it will be an absolute necessity. All it requires is vision, leadership, collaboration and good, old American innovation that has always been plentiful and abundant — like the wind.

Nesbit's most recent Op-Ed was "A No-Fly List No One Bothers to Check." This Op-Ed was adapted from "Where the Wind Blows," which first appeared in Nesbit's column At the Edge in U.S. News & World Report. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.