WASHINGTON—If Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's proposed advances for siting offshore windmills are as sleek, transparent and finely tuned as promised, then Cape Wind in Massachusetts won't be a solo act for too long.
But if his recent streamlining efforts are all talk and no walk, the Atlantic Coast could be in for numerous repeats of the protracted, brutal and spiteful bouts that unfolded in Nantucket Sound for almost a decade.
New Englander Mark Rodgers, Cape Wind's communications manager since 2002, is rooting for the first scenario.
"This a good sign for offshore wind development in the United States," Rodgers told Solve Climate in an interview about this week's formation of the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium. "It's another in a series of steps of real collaboration between federal and state governments in moving wind energy forward."
The consortium, announced Tuesday, is an alliance between the Interior Department and the governors of 10 East Coast states. Together, they are drafting a plan to promote what Salazar called efficient, orderly and responsible offshore wind development along the Outer Continental Shelf.
European nations have already blazed an impressive trail of success on the other side of the Atlantic, with more than 2000MW now installed offshore and generating wind power. A quarter of that total came online last year, with another 1000MW expected in 2010.
Expediting an onerous federal permitting process should be the top priority, Rodgers of Cape Wind emphasized. He has no quibble with the process being comprehensive—it just needs to be less complicated.
"We knew going first would be the hardest," he said about Cape Wind, which Salazar gave the green light to April 28, eight days after an oil rig explosion caused the country's most massive environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. "All along, we were hoping to blaze the trail for those who follow."
"Governors of East Coast states are not interested in underwriting tens of billions of dollars to upgrade an infrastructure to bring electricity from the wind belt in the middle of county to population centers here," Rodgers continued. "Instead, they have vast untapped resources just a few miles off shore."
Nuts and Bolts of the Deal
The governors of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina all signed the memorandum of understanding with Salazar. The agreement also directs Interior officials to create inter-governmental task forces so local, state, tribal and federal stakeholders can coordinate the commercial leasing process for offshore renewables.
Many conservation organizations and a Washington-based trade group, the American Wind Energy Association, applauded Salazar's announcement. Tom Vinson, AWEA's director of federal regulatory affairs, said he is confident the consortium will ensure that offshore wind projects continue to progress in a timely manner.
Numerous offshore wind developers, including Bluewater Wind (owned by New Jersey-based NRG Energy) and Deepwater Wind, are progressing on small and large wind farm projects along the Northeast and mid-Atlantic shores.
Interior's new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management—a division created by Salazar's May decision to divide Minerals Management Service into three parts—will oversee the development of wind and other renewable resources on the Outer Continental Shelf. Virginia will be home to a regional renewable energy office, though a specific location is still being decided, Salazar said.
Balancing Near and Far Renewable Energy Is Vital
Though Rob Marmet of the Virginia-based Piedmont Environmental Council has not reviewed the agreement's paperwork yet, he told SolveClimate Wednesday it's a positive move because offshore wind can be a major and local power supply for the East Coast, which is dotted with electricity-hungry cities.
"In general, offshore wind is a resource that appears to be an excellent choice," he said. "It's close to the electricity load and it's where the wind blows. Of course, it would be foolish for me to say there's never a good transmission line. They aren't inherently good or bad. It's just that we are firm believers in (power sources) being locally built and locally controlled."
Multiple environmental organizations have raised red flags about the risk of crisscrossing the country with less-than-attractive, super-size transmission lines. Builders and financial backers say new lines will enhance the nation's electrical grid by delivering renewable and conventional power from the sparsely populated places where it is generated to the urban centers that crave it.
No doubt, Marmet said, some pieces of this transmission superhighway will likely be necessary. But the footprint of the entire network as envisioned by some could be downsized if geographic regions such as Atlantic Coast are given permission to cater to their varied energy strengths.
"We are concerned that making the grid larger makes it more brittle," Marmet explained. "If we complicate one of the most complicated machines man has ever built because we're sending solar power from the desert Southwest to Atlanta or wind from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., the whole system could break down if something goes wrong."
Currently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is compiling a series of recommendations for developing the transmission grid. It's a requirement included in the landmark climate change bill co-sponsored by Democrats Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts that the House of Representatives passed last year.
Shallow regions that stretch far offshore make the Atlantic particularly fitting for offshore wind. An estimated one million megawatts of wind power exists off the East Coast, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The Department of Energy has drafted a plan demonstrating the potential for one-fifth of the country's electricity needs could come from wind by 2030.
Eastern states have argued repeatedly that granting FERC centralized resource planning and associated siting jurisdiction could undermine the benefits of competition in electricity markets, harm economies and cripple the region's ability to retain policy authority over energy resource planning.
"If you move all of those responsibilities to FERC, local people feel isolated from the system," Marmet said. "When they don't feel like they have a role, it increases the role of victimhood that is all too pervasive in our society today."
Energy Push and Pull
The tension over how and where power should be transmitted is a clear indicator to Mark Brownstein at the Environmental Defense Fund that national policies need tweaking.
"It's inevitable that some energy resources are going to come from the Great Plains and others will come from offshore," said Brownstein, the fund's deputy director of energy programs. "The question isn't which is the better alternative but how do we set up planning procedures and policies that allow everybody to fairly assess the full cost of various options?"
Congress created a powerful incentive for transmission construction in its Energy Policy Act of 2005 by guaranteeing a very attractive rate of return of 13 percent, Brownstein pointed out.
"But you can't have transmission developers running roughshod over other energy options simply because that carrot is dangling out there," he added.
Brownstein also warned that building out too much transmission—whether it's near or far—will undermine tremendous strides that utilities, businesses and homeowners have made recently to increase energy efficiency and reduce energy demand.
Inviting All Stakeholders to the Table
Transmission line builders and offshore wind developers have an equal responsibility to inform everybody involved or affected by a project to minimize surprises, Marmet said, adding that the list includes landowners and environmental groups as well as those in the fishing, recreation and tourism industries.
"Often landowners and others don't hear about a project until decision have already been made," he continued. "They need to see the value of a shared sacrifice."
Marmet's comments resonate with Rodgers. Energy Management Inc., the developer of Cape Wind, negotiated with local stakeholders in addition to undergoing an environmental permitting process that included 17 state and federal agencies.
Cape Wind's 130 turbines will be laid out on a 25-square mile section of Nantucket Sound. They are projected to meet 75 percent of the electricity demand for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Island and slice carbon dioxide emissions from conventional power plants by 700,000 tons annually, according to Interior. That is equivalent to removing 175,000 cars from the road for a year.
The project's maximum electric output is 468 megawatts—slightly smaller than an average coal-fired plant—with an average anticipated output of 182 megawatts. The latter is enough to power more than 200,000 homes. Infrastructure also includes a 66.5-mile buried submarine transmission cable system, an electric service platform and two 115-kilovolt lines connecting to the mainland power grid.
"Windmills serve as a visible reminder of where energy comes from," Rodgers concluded. "Instead of looking at a smokestack you'll be seeing structures that are tall but elegant and that interact with the natural environment to make clean energy."
(Photo: Cape Cod, courtesy of NASA)