Episode 37: Offshore Wind Energy with Benj Sykes (Orsted) and Liz Burdock (Business Network for Offshore Wind)

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Get your lifejackets on, folks - we're going offshore! While most installed wind energy capacity in the U.S. is on land, offshore wind is prevalent in Europe and poised to accelerate on American waters. We have no doubt you'll be blown away as you hear about the potential for offshore wind and the jobs it can generate. Join us as speak with experts on two different continents: Jay talked to Benj Sykes, UK Country Manager at Orsted, in London, and Scott sat down with Liz Burdock, CEO and President of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, at the GreenBiz VERGE conference in Oakland. Enjoy this long overdue energy-focused episode!

Learn more about environmental awareness here!

Episode Intro Notes

What We'll Cover:

  • Basics of wind

  • How wind turbines work

  • History of wind energy

  • Onshore versus offshore wind

  • Overview of the offshore wind energy market

  • Trends in offshore wind energy

  • Resources for listeners 

Basics of wind

Let’s start with square one and ask, what even causes wind (some of us may be too embarrassed to ask)? Wind occurs when air moves from high pressure to low pressure areas on the earth’s surface. When the sun warms the air, it becomes less dense and rises. As air rises, the pressure lowers and surrounding air moves in to replace it, causing wind.

The more the difference in high and low pressure, the faster the air moves. This difference in pressure is caused by uneven heating of the earth’s surface, which happens due to the earth’s rotation around the sun and due to different land and water formations absorbing the sun’s radiations unevenly.


how wind turbines work

When wind blows, it carries kinetic energy which can move objects. A wind turbine has blades which are designed to rotate when hit by the wind – this motion is vital to the generation of electricity. The earliest turbines (or windmills, really) used materials like cloth to achieve this same effect.

Most wind turbines today start operating at a wind speed of 3-5 meters per second (which is essentially a gentle breeze). As the blades of the turbine spin they turn a shaft in the nacelle, or the box on top of a wind turbine. A generator, which is built into the nacelle, then converts this rotational energy into electrical energy, which then needs to be transformed into a suitable voltage to be connected to the grid or used by a local site. Regardless of the size or location of a wind turbine, they all use the same mechanics in order to generate electricity.

History of wind energy

Let’s start with some brief history about wind energy generally. People used wind energy to propel boats along the Nile River as early as 5,000 BC. In America, colonists used windmills to grind grain, pump water, and cut wood at sawmills. Small wind turbines were widely used In the late 1800s and early 1900s but their use began to decline when power lines were built to transmit electricity to rural areas in the 1930s.

Let’s move offshore. In 1991, the world’s first offshore windfarm called Vindeby was built in Denmark with with eleven 450 kW turbines. First large-scale offshore wind farm, Middelgrunden, was erected off Copenhagen in 2000 with twenty 2MW turbines (about 8x larger than Vindeby). The first offshore wind farm in the US was the Block Island Wind Farm, which came online in December 2016. Its five turbines power 17,000 homes on the small island that had been disconnected from Rhode Island’s main grid and was relying on dirty diesel.

onshore versus offshore wind

There are key differences between these two types of wind farms in terms of efficiency, cost, and marine life.

  • Efficiency. Offshore farms tend to be more efficient than onshore wind farms, as wind speed and direction are more consistent at these locations. This means that fewer turbines are required to provide the same amount of electricity as onshore turbines.

  • Cost. Onshore wind farms tend to be less expensive than offshore farms (more on this in a moment).

  • Marine life. Offshore wind has the potential to harm marine mammals.

    • With northeast US coastal waters teeming with marine life, including the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, precautions must be taken so that their construction/operations minimizes harm. One major issue is ocean noise from construction activities including driving steel piles, the foundation of for some types of turbines, hundreds of feet into the ocean floor. An example of a best practice to avoid harm from this noise is using “bubble curtain” sleeves around the piles to diminish noise as they are hammered down.

    • Both have the issue of harm to birds. Estimates vary but it’s several hundred thousand bird deaths a year due to wind turbines. This is quite a lot less than deaths due to cats (couple billion) and collisions with buildings (hundreds of millions). Reminds me of that video of Randy Johnson, a hall of fame pitcher known for his insanely fast pitches, taking out a bird on it’s way past home plate.

    • Both have the issue of harm to birds. Estimates vary but it’s several hundred thousand bird deaths a year due to wind turbines. This is quite a lot less than deaths due to cats (couple billion) and collisions with buildings (hundreds of millions). Reminds me of that video of Randy Johnson, a hall of fame pitcher known for his insanely fast pitches, taking out a bird on it’s way past home plate.

The offshore wind energy market

The Global Wind Energy Council proclaimed that 2017 “was a spectacular year for the offshore wind sector”. A historical record of a little over 4,300 MW of new offshore wind power was installed across nine markets globally in 2017. This represents a 95% increase on the 2016 market. Overall, there are now over 18,000MW of installed offshore wind capacity in 17 countries around the world. That is enough to power the equivalent of nearly 9 million average homes in the New York/New Jersey area. By that math, it’s 500 homes per MW so keep that in mind as we keep talking megawatts.

At the end of 2017, nearly 84% of all offshore installations were located in the waters off the coast of eleven European countries. The UK is the world’s largest offshore wind market and accounts for just over 36% of installed capacity, followed by Germany in the second spot with 28.5%. China comes third in the global offshore rankings with just under 15%.

Are our American listeners feeling down and out about not making this top list? Fret not! Many note that the United States seems to be poised as the next breakout market for offshore wind development, as technology improvements have made these projects, which once required large subsides to succeed, economically viable on their own.

Trends in offshore wind


  • McKinsey noted in a 2017 report that offshore wind tended to be 40% more expensive than onshore wind on a levelized cost of electricity basis. Levelized cost is a metric that incorporates total lifetime costs and expected production. Costs are higher for offshore wind because building at sea requires more materials for foundations and piles, and rough weather conditions make installation, operation, and maintenance more expensive. Offshore wind parks also require expensive connectors to the inland transmission network.

New tech

  • One is building taller wind towers to access more consistent wind resources.

  • Next-generation blades stretching over 70 meters will help the wind turbine capture more wind as efficiently as possible. These 70 meter blades are nearly the length of a football field! These will enable capacity for energy generation to increase, all while the installed cost per kilowatt falls and plant life expectancy grows. Turbines will also increasingly incorporate intelligent controls and remote monitors to increase overall efficiency.

More contracts and potentially many more jobs in the US

  • Some states have ambitious offshore wind targets. Two of the most ambitious are New York and New Jersey.

  • New York has a target of 2,400 MW by 2030. New York has one offshore wind project already under contract and plans another major procurement of approximately 800 megawatts in late 2018.

  • Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maryland have all awarded offshore wind contracts.

  • The Department of Energy’s offshore wind project pipeline is at 25,464 MW of capacity across 13 states. For comparison, Europe’s offshore pipeline is over 100,000 MW.

  • DOE also noted in its National Offshore Wind Strategy that the industry could support 150,000 jobs in the US by 2050.In fact, a Workforce Development Institute study found that building an offshore wind power plant requires a diverse technical workforce spanning an estimated 74 occupations.

Resources for Listeners

If your power provider allows, opt for programs that include a mix of wind energy (or any renewable energy source, for that matter). For example, try to find an organization like CleanPowerSF (which is based in San Francisco) in your area. CleanPowerSF advertises the ability for you to keep your same energy service while opting for cleaner energy, whether you’re a residential or commercial user.

Of course, take your passion to the polls! Scan for upcoming initiatives on your November ballot that support the development of renewable energy.

About our guests

Benj Sykes is the UK Country Manager at Ørsted (formerly known as DONG Energy). He has responsibility for the business performance of the company's portfolio of operating windfarms across NW Europe. Previously Benj worked at Hess Corporation, a Fortune 100 Oil and Gas company, so he’ll be able to tell us what life was like on the dark side!

Liz Burdock is the CEO & President of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, a national 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, dedicated to building the U.S. offshore wind supply chain. This private sector, membership‐driven, organization acts as a collaborative entity to deliver educational programming, conduct outreach, and foster bilateral cooperation in the offshore wind industry.