Cape Wind Decision Propels Other Offshore Projects
By David Harrison, Staff Writer
Last week's approval of a wind farm off the Massachusetts shore has wind energy developers in other states riding a wave of new momentum, even as the Gulf Coast oil spill casts doubt on the future of drilling.
From Maine to North Carolina, efforts to plant enormous wind turbines on the ocean floor got a boost when the U.S. Interior Department signed off on 130 wind turbines five miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the first time an offshore wind project has passed federal muster.
The next day, in New Jersey, a company called Fishermen's Energy launched a buoy to measure wind speed and temperatures to determine the best location to site turbines. If all goes as the company hopes, construction on up to 100 offshore turbines could begin next year, says spokeswoman Rhonda Jackson.
In Delaware, where another offshore project is in the works, officials also were watching the federal government's decision closely. "People that I know were not doing anything else that morning, waiting for that announcement," says Willett Kempton, a wind energy expert at the University of Delaware. "It was a month of buildup." The Delaware proposal recently cleared a hurdle of its own when the U.S. Interior Department last month issued a "Request for Interest" from developers interested in locating turbines in federal waters.
Similar offshore wind projects are being considered in Maine and Maryland. Meanwhile, a Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium report last month found that 10 percent of that state's energy could come from offshore wind. In Rhode Island, however, the Public Utilities Commission sank a plan to build eight offshore turbines. Regulators cited the high cost of the power the project would produce. Gov. Donald Carcieri, a backer of wind energy, called it "an extraordinarily short-sighted and narrow-minded decision."
Although wind farms already dot America's open prairie and mountain ridges, there are no offshore turbines harnessing ocean gales. Europe, meanwhile, gets electricity from 830 turbines off the coasts of nine countries; China finished installing its first offshore project this year. A 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Energy found that the United States could get 20 percent of its energy from offshore wind turbines, many of them in the Atlantic.
In the U.S., many of the proposed projects would be located in federal waters — more than three miles from shore — which means they would need federal agencies from the Federal Aviation Administration to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to sign off on the plans. State governments and utility companies see the Cape Cod decision, which has been hotly debated since 2001, as a sign that Washington will not stand in their way. It's also given them hope that future decisions will not take as long to reach.
The Massachusetts project drew opposition from a variety of local groups, ranging from the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, whose Hyannis home is in sight of where the turbines are to go, to conservationists and fishermen, who say the turbines will kill birds and fish, to Wampanoag tribes who say the turbines will interfere with burial grounds and sunrise ceremonies. Opponents say the fight is not over yet: They will take the federal government to court over the decision.
In other states where offshore wind power has been proposed, it's been far less contentious. And unlike the Cape Wind project, developers in New Jersey and Delaware already have struck deals to sell the electricity they produce to local utility companies. They also hope building new wind farms will create jobs.
Right now, there are no manufacturers in the United States capable of making offshore turbines, which, owing to their underwater foundations, are built differently than their land-based counterparts. In the days following the Cape Wind decision, German industrial giant Siemens, a major manufacturer of the turbines, announced it would open an office in Boston. Economic development officials in other states took note.
The jobs opportunities with offshore wind are two-fold. First is in manufacturing. A newly built turbine requires a machine with more than 50 wheels to move it to a boat for its passage offshore, so it makes sense for manufacturers to build turbines close to the dock it's to leave from. Later, when a wind farm is functional, those turbines will have to be serviced, which means somebody is going to have to ferry maintenance workers out to sea.
"As with onshore wind, there's an advantage to siting locally," says Tom Vinson, director for federal regulatory affairs at the American Wind Energy Association. "The states are being very aggressive about trying to pitch their individual states as viable locations for that type of supply chain development."
Fishermen get hooked
In New Jersey, nobody has embraced the potential business opportunity more than a group that is accustomed to getting its livelihood from the sea: fishermen. In 2007, a band of them launched Fishermen's Energy to place turbines off the coast. Commercial fishermen have traditionally opposed offshore wind projects because the turbines and undersea transmission lines are likely to make it difficult for them to trawl their nets along the sea floor. In New Jersey, that wasn't the case.
Jackson, the company spokesperson, says Fishermen's founders were only being pragmatic. "This group of people, commercial fishing company owners in New Jersey, really got together and decided that they could either invest money in fighting this or invest money in helping site this and see it's done properly."
New Jersey's goal is to generate 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2020 — an amount that could power about 800,000 homes. Former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, was an outspoken advocate of wind energy, and backers were worried that when his successor, Republican Chris Christie took office, they wouldn't get as much support from the governor's office. But Jackson says Christie has tried to loosen restrictions that could make it difficult for developers to get the necessary permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Christie joined Delaware's Markell and four other governors in writing a letter last month to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging him to approve the Cape Wind plan.