04/17/2012 12:38 pm ET

Brittany Gibbons, SUNY Undergraduate Student, Maps Cape Cod-New Jersey Offshore Wind Corridor

The onshore wind power industry is growing rapidly. In fact, many of the largest operational onshore wind farms are located right in the United States. Offshore wind power, whereby turbines are installed at sea to capture relentless breezes, is off to a slower start, however. The offshore industry faces cost challenges, in addition to opposition from activists on a range of issues, including fishing, navigation, endangered species, scenic views and tribal rights.

Brittany Gibbons, a senior at SUNY Oswego, thinks that there is a happy medium to be found between preserving the environment and taking advantage of offshore wind’s potential for clean energy generation. The meteorology student has spent the last academic year collecting data and building computer-generated maps that could help create an offshore wind power corridor from Cape Cod to New Jersey.

Gibbons’ honors thesis project, completed under the mentorship of Robert Ballentine of the meteorology department, has not only reinforced her theory that offshore wind is a solution for growing energy demand, but illuminated interesting facts about how to make offshore wind farms profitable, according to the university.

Using a meteorological numerical prediction model called WRF (Weather Research and Forecasting), Gibbons has collected data on offshore wind direction, speed, sustainability and more. She then used the information to create digital maps—in vivid colors—showing such features as optimum distance from shore and tower height for the familiar wind-driven power generators. (Her work appears to be broadly similar to new research from a team of engineers at Stanford University, who recently published a study in Geophysical Research Letters that describes a complicated weather model that can determine optimal placement of wind farms.)

“So far with a mini-tab analysis we have found specific distances in the spring where sustainable winds are seen to level off at 10 meters per second,” she said. “Beyond that distance, it doesn’t make economic sense, because the tower foundations would have to be built in much deeper water for relatively the same amount of energy as in shallower waters.”

This knowledge will come in handy for wind speculators, who will always want to position offshore turbines so that they can operate at highest levels of efficiency, providing clean power to the Eastern sea board at a cost that will be attractive to consumers.