Wednesday, March 5, 2008

0-for-3 offshore wind power tries Jersey

Energy needs continue to grow in the Northeast. At a point not too far in the future we are told that the demand for electricity will exceed the ability of the region's aging infrastructure's to keep pace.

Since the old solution to the problem--building new generating plants powered by coal and natural gas--have fallen out of favor primarily for environmental reasons, and persistent safety fears (and enormous construction costs) continue to slow the prospects for a nuclear-power revival, you'd think that wind turbines would be near the top of the short lists of energy alternatives.

Especially when wind farms can be built off the coast, almost out of sight, and in neighborhoods where the NIMBY-ite whales and birds can't scare any politicians with their votes.

But the industry's record has been anything but promising so far.

New Jersey's Board of Public Utilities announced this week that it has received proposals from three developers to build a total of 116 wind turbines some 16 miles off the coast. The first project, a joint venture involving the state's largest utility, PSEG, calls for construction of 96 wind turbines arranged in a rectangular grid off the coast of Cape May and Atlantic counties. The wind farm would be virtually invisible from land, even though the wind turbines would rise between 450 and 500 feet above the water.

The second, proposed by Blue Water Wind (the company seeking to build a wind farm off the coast of Delaware) envisions a 348-megawatt wind farm, consisting of 116 turbines located more than 15 miles southeast of Atlantic City.

The third bid comes from Fishermen's Energy of New Jersey, a consortium representing companies operating fishing vessels and owners of waterfront docks in South Jersey. Its proposal envisions 66 turbines, built in two phases, at an undisclosed distance off Atlantic City.

As Star-Ledger reporter Tom Johnson noted in his story today on the wind farm proposals, the projects "would help the Corzine administration reach ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gases, while shifting electricity production to cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar power"

But "...with project costs running upwards of $1 billion, the projects need to overcome numerous environmental and economic hurdles at a time when the commercial feasibility of wind power remains a question..."

You can say that again. Following is the history to date of coastal wind farm development in the Northeast.

In Massachusetts, Cape Wind Associates hopes to erect 130 wind turbines some 14 miles off the island of Nantucket. The project is expected to produce an average of 170 megawatts of electricity at any given time, about 75% of the average electricity demand for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket island combined.

81% of Massachusetts adults support the project, 61% of Cape Cod residents support it, and only 14% of adults oppose it. Unfortunately for the project developers, one of the opponents is Robert Kennedy, Jr. whose family's Kennedy Compound is within sight of the proposed wind farm. Robert's uncle (and U.S. Senator) Edward Ted Kennedy has done his part to kill the project by adding a section to a Coast Guard reauthorization bill that would have banned any offshore wind project that is sited within 1.5 miles of a shipping channel.

A federal environmental impact study on the project is nearing completion but the jury's still out on this one.

In New York State, soaring costs led Long Island Power Authority Chairman Kevin Law last summer to terminate a controversial plan to build a 40-turbine wind farm off the coast of Jones Beach. When LIPA first announced the plan, it estimated the cost to be between $150 million and $200 million. But LIPA did not disclose actual costs until Newsday filed a Freedom of Information Law in 2007.

Initially, LIPA denied the request, but on appeal it provided limited and outdated information disclosing that FPL Energy's winning bid for the project in 2003 was $356 million. Newsday later reported that the cost had ballooned to $650 million. By the time the project was canceled, the LIPA was admitting to a total cost just shy of $700 million.

In Delaware, "Eager to become the first northeast state to supplant a chunk of its fossil-fuel-derived energy with wind power, Delaware's Public Service Commission has been all but flogging the state's largest electricity producer, Delmarva Power, into a long-term contract with upstart wind farm developer, Bluewater Wind."

That's what we reported on September 28, 2007 in our post A financial windshift for Delaware energy?

But the project has stalled in recent months and is now the subject of renewed hearing in the Delaware legislature. On February 20, we were writing in DE's wind-power debate has implications for NJ that:

"The battle over a proposed 150-turbine wind farm off Delaware's Rehoboth Beach intensified Saturday as the president of Delmarva Power published an op-ed letter in the Wilmington News Journal attacking Bluewater Wind project as too costly. "

There's that word "costly" again, just like in New York. Look for it to reappear in the upcoming debate in New Jersey, as details of the three competing projects are made available.

One of the interesting differences in the Garden State, however, will be the fact that a utility (PSEG) is one of the wind farm developers instead of the main opponent as has been the case in Delaware.

It should be an interesting discussion.

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