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Why Offshore Wind Energy May Take Off on the East Coast

After years of delays and legal battles, several offshore wind projects seem poised to be launched off the U.S. East Coast. But obstacles to larger development still remain.
 
 
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In June, after years of offshore wind power projects being thwarted in the United States, the first offshore wind turbine began spinning off the U.S. coast. The turbine was not a multi-megawatt, 400-foot behemoth off of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, or Texas — all places where projects had long been proposed. Rather, the turbine was installed  in Castine Harbor, Maine, rising only 60 feet in the air and featuring a 20-kilowatt capacity — enough to power only a few homes. 

But it was a turbine — finally. Offshore wind power in the U.S. has struggled mightily to rise from the waves, even as other renewable energy industries have steadily grown. The country now has  more than 60,000 megawatts of onshore wind, but still just the lone offshore turbine, a pilot project run in part by researchers at the University of Maine. Meanwhile, Europe has left the U.S. far behind, installing its first offshore turbine in 1991 and growing rapidly in the past decade. To date, the countries of the European Union have built 1,939 offshore turbines with 6,040 megawatts of capacity. 

Is the U.S. offshore wind industry finally about to get off the ground? Offshore wind carries impressive electricity-generating potential, and several projects seem poised to get underway. But energy analysts say the industry still faces daunting hurdles, most notably the higher cost of building offshore wind farms, the expense of connecting them to the onshore grid, and the lack of the comprehensive government incentives and renewable energy targets that have been crucial in fostering the growth of Europe’s offshore wind energy sector.

On the positive side, the infamous Cape Wind project, mired in legal battles for more than a decade, hopes to start construction next year. With plans to construct 130 turbines in the shoals between Nantucket and Cape Cod,  Cape Wind has faced enormous legal struggles because of opposition from local residents concerned that the turbines would mar the region’s beauty and harm seabird populations. But its legal battles are now largely behind it, and Cape Wind has power-purchase agreements in place. The wind farm’s developer,  Jim Gordon, says the project will eventually be capable of supplying about 75 percent of the electricity needs of Cape Cod, which has a year-round population of 215,000.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of the Interior have been aggressively moving to streamline permitting processes for offshore wind farms, and this summer completed the first two auctions for large offshore parcels for wind development off the East Coast. Rhode Island-based  Deepwater Wind — owned in part by investment firm D.E. Shaw and by  First Wind, a Boston-based developer — won the  first-ever offshore wind auction held by a division of the Interior Department known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). With its winning $3.8 million bid, Deepwater Wind now holds the wind power rights to 165,000 acres off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“We believe that site is the single best site for offshore wind in the United States,” says Deepwater CEO Jeffrey Grybowski, citing the powerful and consistent winds and access to markets in four states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. Though the exact number will depend on how much power it can sell to utilities, Deepwater Wind hopesto install roughly 200 turbines that could generate more than 1,000 megawatts, enough to power about 400,000 homes.

second BOEM auction took place in early September for a 112,799-acre parcel off the coast of Virginia, this time won by Virginia Electric and Power Company. The planned wind farm could grow as big as 2,000 megawatts. Auctions for sites off of Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are expected to be held in the next year.

“The more projects we get in the water, the more that will accelerate the development of the industry,” says Chris Long, the manager of offshore wind and siting policy at the American Wind Energy Association. “You need to build projects in order to continue innovations, to drive down costs, to achieve scale, and achieve experience. Getting this first round of projects in the water will certainly help to accelerate the development of the industry.”

At this point, it appears that the first commercial offshore wind installation to begin operating in the U.S. will be  Block Island Wind Farm, being developed by Deepwater Wind. Sited about 3 miles from Block Island — itself about 15 miles off the coast of Rhode Island — the wind farm will feature five mammoth turbines, each capable of generating six megawatts. The proposed Block Island installation has the advantage of sitting in state rather than federal waters, easing permitting issues. Grybowski, says permitting is all but finished for that project and construction should start next year.

 
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