Someday these giants could be floating off the Oregon coast

The U.S. government has given a Seattle energy company initial regulatory approval to build the first offshore wind facility on the West Coast.

 Floating turbines won't dot the coastline of the Western United States next month—or even next year. But the regulatory groundwork is being laid to someday make that a reality.

The U.S. government has given initial regulatory approval to Seattle-based Principle Power to build a 30-megawatt pilot project using floating wind turbine technology in federal waters offshore Coos Bay, Oregon. Once built, it would be the first offshore wind project on the West Coast.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, part of the Interior Department and the agency that oversees energy projects in federal waters including oil and gas leases, gave the OK on Wednesday for Principle Power to submit a formal plan. Once the company submits a plan, BOEM will complete a national environmental policy act analysis, which includes an opportunity for public comment, before making a final decision. 

Principle Power will seek to locate its project within a 15-square-mile proposed lease area. The estimated $200 million project is designed to generate electricity from five floating "Windfloat" units, each equipped with a 6-megawatt offshore wind turbine. The turbines would be connected by cables and an underwater cable would transmit electricity to the mainland. The project, if approved, is expected to be operational by 2017.

A prototype of the WindFloat system has been operational off the coast of Portugal since October 2011. 

On the West Coast, water depths make it impossible to use fixed foundations. Unlike other offshore wind systems, these turbines are not installed on pilings or seabed foundations. Instead, the floating wind turbine system is constructed in a shipyard's dry-dock and then towed offshore using conventional tug vessels. 

The West coast has the capability of generating more than 800 gigawatts of wind energy, according to the National Renewable energy Laboratory. That's the equivalent to more than three quarters of the nation's entire power generation capacity. BOEM has also issued two non-competitive leases and three competitive leases on the Atlantic Coast. If the five Atlantic Coast leases are fully developed, they could generate enough renewable energy to power 1.4 million homes, BOEM Director Tommy P. Beaudreau said. 

Of course, the road from concept to finished project is a long and winding one that requires numerous regulatory approvals and financing.

Check out this video from Principle Power that shows the construction and installation of one of its floating turbines. 

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