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Vision: Why the Mid-Atlantic Can Be the 'Persian Gulf of Offshore Wind Energy'

The region could provide nearly a third of U.S. energy demand with wind turbines. The only thing we lack is the political will to accomplish it, but that may be changing.

For visions of America's energy future, we tend to look to the nexus of the current world energy order -- the Middle East. That's how we ended up with America's worst nickname ever: the "Saudi Arabia of coal." To the coal-industry shills who coined it, the term was meant to convey ideas of energy independence, security and patriotism. To those of us who know better it means a promise of boiling chaotic doom for the planet, and a future of shattered landscapes and poisoned waters for coal-country communities.

That's the nightmare energy vision from the Middle East. But thankfully there's a positive alternative -- a vision that goes far beyond rhetoric to encapsulate a future of limitless, clean, healthy, secure and 100-percent American energy. It's the "Persian Gulf of offshore wind energy" and it describes a little known area of the eastern seaboard otherwise known as the Mid-Atlantic Bight, which runs from Massachusetts to North Carolina.

In the annals of energy discoveries, the discovery of the Bight's wind energy potential could rank right up there with the discovery of oil beneath the sands of the Arabian Peninsula. A 2007 joint Stanford University-University of Delaware study found that fully developed with over 166,000 wind turbines, the Bight's waters could produce as much as 330,000 megawatts of power, or effectively one third of U.S. energy demand. Even more exciting, the researchers concluded that full-scale development of the resource was well within the realm of technological possibility. All that was required was the political will to make it happen.

Fortunately that political will has been steadily mounting in recent years. Fired up by the incredible promise of this unparalleled national energy resource, a broad and growing coalition of forward-thinking governors, federal officials, tech companies, environmental and labor organizations and citizen activists has arisen to support its development. Together these players are forging an American clean-energy revolution around the Bight, and every American should know something about who they are and exactly what they're contributing to our collective future.

States leading the charge

In the absence of any real federal leadership, states have been leading on climate and clean energy policy for years, so it's no surprise that East Coast states should top the list of key institutional players in the fight for the Bight.

Even before the Delaware/Stanford study, developers were moving to tap the amazing potential of the Bight. The first proposed project emerged nearly a decade ago when Cape Wind Associates filed for a federal permit to construct a 400+ megawatt wind farm in Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound. But a complex landscape of regulatory and political hurdles slowed progress on the project down to a nearly decade-long crawl until the Massachusetts government stepped in to help get things moving.

The core issue Massachusetts decision-makers helped tackle was cost. Due to development expenses, offshore wind power currently comes with a higher upfront price tag than, say, coal power. Thus, before they'll pony up the billions needed to build an offshore wind project investors want to make sure there's a market for their product.

States like Massachusetts have sought to address this with legislation requiring state utilities to purchase power from the farms at a set cost per kilowatt hour over a 20- to 25-year period. The upshot is that developers get a good return on their investment, while consumers only have to pay about $1.50 extra per month on their bills, and will actually come out ahead a few years down the road. Moreover, in the words of a spokesperson for Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, long-term contracts legislation "give the [offshore wind] industry the shot in the arm it needs" to attain scale and bring development costs down.

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