U.S. offshore wind farms: The race is on?

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By: SGN Staff

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By Doug Peeples

SGN News Editor

 

Virginia may become the first state to actually have an operating offshore wind farm in the water. While approval from the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers is yet to be given, the state could have a 479-foot tall in the water and under test about three miles off Cape Charles on the state's eastern shore by late next year.

 

In February, the Interior Department said environmental reviews for  wind energy areas off the coasts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia did not foresee any "significant environmental impacts" from offshore wind farms.

 

As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the time "The wind potential off the Atlantic coast is staggering and no developer should have to wait nine to 10 years to get a lease." Salazar was, of course, referring to Cape Wind, the controversial wind farm proposed off the Massachusetts coast. The 130-turbine project has faced an intimidating array of roadblocks: vehement and well-financed local opposition, lawsuits and stalled government loan guarantees to name the big ones. That and it took 10 years of jumping through the siting, permitting and other hoops to get through the approval process.

But if you're an offshore wind supporter, there's room for hope in this country (and one reason to be a little depressed). Here's why.

 

Virginia: Regulators in late March approved the state's prototype and it looks like Spain's Gamesa Corp. is on track with partner Newport News Shipbuilding to install the 5-megawatt turbine. Gamesa, the world's fourth largest wind turbine manufacturer, won unanimous approval from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. While there have been environmental concerns about bird deaths caused by wind turbines, an official of the American Bird Conservancy conceded that the lease areas off the Virginia and Maryland coasts "are not the worst places for birds," in part because they would be at least 10 miles offshore.

 

Maryland: With its bigger than big ship building companies, steel mills and metal parts manufacturers, Maryland would seem more than able to support offshore wind – and supporters have promised that wind farms off the coast would bring thousands of jobs and an important source of power. But a couple of weeks ago, a major bill that would have given the state's offshore wind industry a serious boost died in the Senate Finance Committee, despite winning a healthy thumbs up from the House of Delegates in March.

 

Maybe the third time's the charm. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley said he would try again next year to get a bill passed.

 

New Jersey: The state's environmental regulators issued environmental permits for Fishermen's Energy to build a demonstration 6-turbine wind farm near Atlantic City. According to Sustainable Business, the Fishermen's Energy Offshore Wind Project will in four years be followed up with a utility-scale project 12 miles offshore. And New Jersey does appear to be in a race with Virginia. "There are no operating offshore wind farms in America yet; this can be a first for New Jersey and the country," said Daniel Cohen, president of Fishermen's Energy. The company was created by New Jersey commercial fishermen as a response to the need to develop offshore wind, and at the same time protect the fishing industry.

 

Rhode Island/Massachusetts: The almost 165,000-acre Wind Energy Area (WEA) identified off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts has been getting a lot of attention lately. DOI's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will conduct an environmental assessment to identify any impacts that could result from future wind farm leases  in the area. DOI has already excluded important commercial fishing grounds from the WEA, but assuming the environmental assessment goes well, BOEM could begin leasing blocks of the area for wind farms. Issues range from vessel traffic, the presence of the endangered Atlantic Right Whale and visual and cultural resources like shipwrecks. Deepwater Wind has already proposed 1 gigawatt wind farm in the area, and supports the decision to exclude commercial fishing grounds.

 

Texas: Yes, Texas is getting in on the act too. The Army Corps of Engineers is getting ready for an environmental assessment of two of the three areas off the south Texas coast where Austin company Baryonyx wants to install wind farms of 200 turbines each. The study should be done by the end of 2014. While there have been concerns about birds and sea life from environmental groups, Baryonyx said it plans to lessen impact on the sea bed by routing electric cables through areas that have already been disturbed and locations where there is no critical habitat, like reefs.

 

Obviously, most U.S. projects are in their infancy. They've got a long way to go and there is an unimaginable number of things that could change before, during and after the assessments and siting and permitting processes are over.

 

Even though Europe's success with offshore wind can provide guidance and encouragement, it's vaguely surprising that so many here think so much of a technology that is untested in this country – and that they're willing to spend the years and millions of dollars it will take to get turbines in the water. It does seem to suggest that, finally, we're getting serious about clean, sustainable, renewable energy – and maybe even willing to risk our necks to get it.

 

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