Offshore wind or offshore oil?

This page authored by Noah Snyder
Boston College, Earth and Environmental Sciences
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Initial Publication Date: June 20, 2012 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


In this project assignment, students write a report exploring the pros and cons of offshore wind power generation and offshore oil exploration. It was motivated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a Massachusetts initiative to develop an offshore wind farm. The goal is for students to collect information from a variety of sources, make some basic calculations, and use these to take a position. Ideally, the students gain a perspective on the scales of energy production and environmental impact, and get experience defending a position using quantitative information.

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Learning Goals

- Collect information from a variety of sources, make some basic calculations, and use these to take a position.
- Gain perspective on the scales of energy production and environmental impact, and how to work in different quantitative contexts (e.g., units of energy, spatial scales of impacts, etc.).
- Gain experience defending a position using quantitative information.
- Skills: critical thinking, data analysis, synthesis, writing, presentation of quantitative information.
- This project explicitly asks students to evaluate the sustainability of various energy development plans.

Context for Use

This is a project I developed for an introductory environmental science course called "The Human Footprint." The intended audience is environmental studies minors and environmental science majors. I introduce the project during a two-hour lab session one week, and then the project is due about 10 days later. The students have two lab sessions to work on the project. They are welcome to work together on the research and calculations, but each needs to write up her or his own report. This is an open-ended assignment, and therefore it should be quite adaptable to a variety of contexts.

Description and Teaching Materials

In the Bourne (2010) National Geographic article about the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, scientist Mandy Joye is quoted: "The Deepwater Horizon incident is a direct consequence of our global addiction to oil. Incidents like this are inevitable as we drill in deeper and deeper waters. We're playing a very dangerous game here. If this isn't a call to green power, I don't know what is." This is common sentiment, and I want you to critically evaluate it by quantitatively comparing offshore wind and oil. Around the time the oil spill began in April 2010, the long-delayed Cape Wind offshore wind farm proposal received federal government approval to go ahead (e.g., Daley and Finucane, 2010). The two events draw contrasting views of how we should develop energy resources in our coastal oceans. The Cape Wind project is to install 130 wind turbines in a 62 km2 area (24 mi2) of Nantucket Sound, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. According to the developer, the turbines would generate an average of 170 megawatts of power (Cape Wind Associates, 2010), which translates to 5.4×1015 Joules of energy per year. The BP oil spill involved the explosion of a deep water oil drilling platform and subsequent release of approximately 4.9×106 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Using the conversion 1 barrel of crude oil equals 6.1×109 Joules of energy, the spill released about 3.0×1016 J of energy, or the equivalent of 5.6 years of Cape Wind's operation.

The analysis
Your job is to write a report exploring the pros and cons of offshore wind power generation and offshore oil exploration. I want you to use the Cape Wind project as a template (even as a unit of measure, as in the example above) in your comparisons. How you do this is up to you. You may wish to answer some of the following questions:
How many Cape Wind-sized projects would it take to replace the annual energy obtained from oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico? (Or maybe compare with the proposed new drilling on the U.S. Atlantic Ocean coast.)

How many years would Cape Wind need to operate to replace the energy obtained from a single deepwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico over its lifespan? (You may need to think about how long offshore wind turbines can be expected to last.)

How do the environmental costs of offshore wind compare with those of offshore oil (e.g., compare the area of ocean affected by windmills vs. oil rigs, area affected by spills, etc.)? The spill is an obvious environmental impact; what are the negative impacts of offshore wind farms?
These are just a few questions I think would be interesting to explore. You are free to take your analysis wherever you see fit. As much as possible, your analysis should be quantitative. You are not required to investigate the economics of wind development vs. oil development (although you can if you like)—your focus should be on energy generation and impacts. You may want to explore the specifics of where offshore windmills could be located in terms of wind potential—but you can also simply assume that Cape Wind is typical of U.S. offshore coastal areas. You may also want to explore the pros of cons of wind-generated electricity vs. petroleum-generated electricity.

The essence of the question is whether large-scale offshore wind power generation has the potential to significantly influence the U.S. demand for energy. Wind can certainly be part of the mix locally (Denmark generates 19% of its electricity from wind), but could it provide a significant portion of U.S. energy needs?

What to upload
Your report should be 2-4 single-spaced pages long. Work together in groups of 2-4 during the lab periods to explore sources of data and make calculations. Each of you should write your own report. Document your findings using graphs and/or tables. Be sure to write in a manner appropriate for a scientific report and cite references (including websites) properly.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I use the two 2-hour lab periods that occur during this assignment as opportunities for students to work on this project in a collaborative environment where they can work with each other, the professor and the TA to answer questions that they have.


Reports are graded as follows:
50% content: How thoughtful, convincing and well-researched is your analysis?
20% writing: How clear is your report? Are sentences awkward? Are spelling, grammar and punctuation correct?
20% calculations: Are they correct, well-documented and reasonable?
10% format: How well is your report formatted and presented (reference list, page numbering, figures and tables, etc.)?

References and Resources

Bourne, J.K, Jr., 2010, The deep dilemma, National Geographic, v. 218, n. 4, p. 50-53.

Cape Wind Associates, 2010, Cape Wind: America's First Offshore Wind Farm on Nantucket Sound. Accessed September 26, 2010 at

Drash. W., 2010, Interior secretary approves Cape Wind plan, Nation's first offshore wind farm approved for Nantucket Sound, CNN, April 28, 2010.