In Atlantic, More Wind Farms On The Horizon

on Monday, Jan. 24th

To get a sense of where the U.S. stands on offshore energy, consider two maps. One shows something that isn’t really there. The other is missing something that perhaps should be.

Give up?

What’s inaccurate about the first map, which shows the locations of the nearly 4,000 oil and gas platforms in the waters off the Gulf Coast, is that there’s an extra yellow dot – representing an extra oil rig – in the deep water due south of the Mississippi-Alabama border. It’s Deepwater Horizon, the rig that last year exploded, sank and caused over 200 million gallons of crude oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico.

The second map depicts where the country’s highest wind speeds are. There’s a swath of orange and pink covering the middle of the continent, marking a corridor of moderate, 14 to 16 mph wind. But pay attention to the thick strips of red and blue along much of the northern Atlantic and Pacific coasts: sustained wind speeds that range from 18 to 25 mph. It’s in these offshore regions that advocates for renewable energy say we could construct the most efficient and powerful wind farms in the country. But not one of them is there yet.

That will likely change soon… well, soonish. This month, a plan to erect 130 wind turbines off Nantucket finally received all the federal permits needed to build them. The so-called Cape Wind Project, first proposed in 2001, will start construction this year, its developers say. And while more than 20 other offshore projects are already in various stages of planning – including one in Texas that may actually finish first – Cape Wind has been the industry’s bellwether.

“Everyone was waiting to see how Cape Wind went,” says Gordian Raacke, who runs the advocacy group Renewable Energy Long Island. Raacke has watched the offshore wind industry closely since 2005, when a local power authority introduced its plan to build wind turbines off Long Island. That plan was scraped, while Cape Wind trudged on through a protracted permitting process and a noisy battle against a well-funded NIMBY movement. That developers in Nantucket ultimately won approval bodes well for the near-future of offshore wind, says Raacke: “I think we’ll see a lot of other projects now.”

Indeed, Long Island has a new plan, this time in collaboration with utilities in New York City. The project, a 350 megawatt farm more than 13 miles off the Rockaway Peninsula, is one of nine others off the Atlantic coast that have moved beyond the proposal stage. “Hopefully, this time it will move forward,” says Raacke.

According to a study released in December by the National Wildlife Federation, every coastal state from Maine to Georgia has either launched a full-fledged plan or is actively testing the feasibility of wind projects off their coasts.

So the enthusiasm is already there. But Cape Wind’s decade-long permitting ordeal shows that regulation is not. From the NWF study:

Despite the recent approval of the Cape Wind project and efforts to streamline the federal permitting process, it is clear that the permitting of offshore wind facilities must be significantly improved. The U.S. Department of Energy has stated: “Offshore wind projects face uncertain permitting processes that substantially increase the financial risk faced by potential project developers and financiers and that discourage investment both in projects and in the development of supply chain and other supporting infrastructure.”

In the meantime, offshore wind advocates continue to look to Europe for inspiration from projects that have actually been constructed. Nearly a thousand turbines are spinning above the waters of early adopters like Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom. Mapping these farms would be like converging the two American maps above: a North Sea painted in high-wind reds and blues, its edges speckled with yellow dots that represent not oil rigs, but hundreds of turbines.

Raacke notes that renewable energy supporters in Europe also faced opposition when their first offshore projects were proposed in the 1990s. But it quieted down as the turbines went up.

“People were initially uncomfortable, but then they actually saw the wind farms,” says Raacke. “It takes the first one to go in and do it.”

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