Thursday, October 14, 2010

A new gust in offshore wind power's sails

It's been a bracing week for offshore wind power advocates. Not only has an unexpected but serious money player entered the arena but the federal government also showed signs that it might be getting off its duff.

The week's biggest news came from Google, yes Google, the guys you count on to search the Internet.  Here's what they had to say:

We just signed an agreement to invest in the development of a backbone transmission project off the Mid-Atlantic coast that offers a solid financial return while helping to accelerate offshore wind development—so it’s both good business and good for the environment. The new project can enable the creation of thousands of jobs, improve consumer access to clean energy sources and increase the reliability of the Mid-Atlantic region's existing power grid.

When built out, the Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC) backbone will stretch 350 miles off the coast from New Jersey to Virginia and will be able to connect 6,000MW of offshore wind turbines. That’s equivalent to 60% of the wind energy that was installed in the entire country last year and enough to serve approximately 1.9 million households.

The AWC backbone will be built around offshore power hubs that will collect the power from multiple offshore wind farms and deliver it efficiently via sub-sea cables to the strongest, highest capacity parts of the land-based transmission system. This system will act as a superhighway for clean energy. By putting strong, secure transmission in place, the project removes a major barrier to scaling up offshore wind, an industry that despite its potential, only had its first federal lease signed last week and still has no operating projects in the U.S.

Why offshore wind and why the Mid-Atlantic? Many coastal areas in the United States have large population centers on an overstretched grid but limited access to a high-quality land-based wind resource. These coastal states can take advantage of their most promising renewable resource by using larger wind farms with larger turbines that can take advantage of stronger and steadier winds offshore.

The Mid-Atlantic region is ideally suited for offshore wind. It offers more than 60,000 MW of offshore wind potential in relatively shallow waters that extend miles out to sea. These shallow waters make it easier to install turbines 10-15 miles offshore, meaning wind projects can take advantage of stronger winds and are virtually out-of-sight from land. With few other renewable energy options ideally suited for the Atlantic coast, the AWC backbone helps states meet their renewable energy goals and standards (PDF) by enabling a local offshore wind industry to deploy thousands of megawatts of clean, cost-effective wind energy.

Serious hurdles remain: Permit delays, tax incentives, carbon legislation

Google's announcement was  pretty exciting stuff.  But, as offshore wind developers like Bluewater Wind  and  Deepwater Wind and Garden State Offshore Energy and Fishermen's Energy can tell you, planning is one thing but winning state and especially federal approval is quite another.

Developers today are faced with a seven to nine-year approval process before they can hope to begin installing a single turbine. Then there are the daunting challenges of getting Congress to extend tax credits for wind energy and pass climate legislation that increases the price of carbon emissions (to make the cost of wind energy more competitive vs. traditional gas and coal generation).

The prospects of getting Congress to do anything positive are too depressing to presently consider, but at least the Obama administration has shown some positive signs.

A year ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the approval of the nation's first lease of an offshore tract for wind energy-- to Cape Wind Associates-- for a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. Last week, as noted in Google's announcement, the Interior Department signed the lease--the first for commercial wind energy on the Outer Continental Shelf.

And yesterday, Michael Bromwich, head of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, admitted that "the current process for permitting wind projects, Atlantic wind projects in particular, it is too slow, it is too cumbersome, it takes too long.”

Bromwich promised that a revised process will be rolled out in the “not-too-distant future.”

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