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

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.

So far both Delaware and New Jersey have followed Massachusetts' lead in passing their own versions of offshore-wind power-purchasing legislation. And they may soon be joined by Maryland where Governor O'Malley has just introduced the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2011 -- a bill Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called the "strongest, most sensible offshore-wind legislation ever adopted by a U.S. state."

All totaled the initiatives in these four states could bring at least 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power on-line in the next five years. That's enough to power roughly over 400,000 homes, and it's only the beginning. Other states such as New York, Rhode Island, Virginia and North Carolina are also gearing up to get in on the action, and after adding up all current proposed projects, by conservative estimates the Bight could be pumping out upwards of 8,000 megawatts by the end of the decade. This is a significant contribution to energy generation in a region where most of the old coal plants average about 200-400 megawatts.

A little help from the feds

The introduction of Gov. O'Malley's bill wasn't the only big offshore wind power news to emerge this past week. Across the border in Virginia a gaggle of federal and state officials, including Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, gathered in Norfolk to make another big announcement. Chu and Salazar revealed plans by the Obama administration to help fast-track the Bight's development by opening up waters off the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey to leasing by the end of 2011. The secretaries also announced over $50 million in federal aid for offshore wind research and development.

The leasing announcement was significant because while real leadership on clean energy policy may currently reside with the states, it turns out the fight for the Bight could go nowhere without the feds. That's because the best spots for siting the turbines lie about 10 to 20 miles off the coast, in federal waters. Thus, in addition to a guaranteed revenue stream, developers need permission from the Department of the Interior to begin construction. That was one of the major hurdles that led to the protracted Cape Wind fight, and after this past week's announcement it's one that future projects will find much easier to clear.

Going online with Google

What do you get when a deep-pocketed tech company unites with a visionary transmission developer? Answer: the next major pillar of the Bight development effort -- a modern, smartly designed offshore transmission line.

It turns out it's no good constructing all those wind farms unless you have a way to get their power to market. That's where the Bethesda, Maryland-based transmission company Trans-Elect and their venture capital partners at Google come in. The companies made headlines this past October when they announced plans to invest up to $5 billion in a project to construct an underwater transmission backbone to connect Mid-Atlantic wind farms to the grid.

The project not only has the benefit of eliminating the need to build a separate shore link for every single wind farm, but will help overcome another concern associated with wind power in general -- intermittency. It's true that wind doesn't blow all the time in any given location, but one advantage of the Mid-Atlantic Bight is that it's so big there's always a steady breeze blowing somewhere along its 600-mile length. Connected by the Google transmission backbone, farms up and down the Bight could thus provide clean, reliable power, 24/7 for consumers in the Northeast.

It so happens that building in federal waters also happens to provide environmental benefits. Among the commonly expressed concerns about wind energy is the impact on bird and other local wildlife populations. While these concerns are overblown in regards to land-based turbines, they're even more negligible when it comes to turbines built 10 to 12 miles out to sea. According to evidence from over 40 existing offshore wind parks in Europe and a rigorous federal environmental-impact assessment of the Cape Wind project, sea-based turbines pose no significant impact to birds or marine life. The Cape Wind study was so convincing that the Massachusetts Audubon Society fully endorsed the project in 2010.

A big job that means big-time jobs

The true promise of the Bight lies not only in the fact that it's a clean energy resource that can meet the scale of our energy needs, but that it's one which can match the expectations about a "green jobs" revolution.

The construction of a single offshore wind turbine involves 8,000 separate specially designed parts. Everything from the massive steel towers down to the smallest screw means another manufacturing job for American workers. Indeed, numbers [PDF] from the Maryland Energy Administration show that a 500-megawatt wind farm could result in the creation of up to 2,000 short-term manufacturing jobs, and 400 permanent jobs. That works out to about five jobs per megawatt, or well over 1.5 million jobs through the Bight's full-scale 330,000 megawatt development.

Given these numbers, it is little surprise that a labor union such as the United Steel Workers in Maryland is such a strong proponent of offshore wind energy. In the words of the USW's Jim Strong, the passage of Gov. O'Malley's wind bill would be "a big step toward a new clean-energy economy in Maryland that creates real jobs for our workers... [and] lays the groundwork for a new strategy to bring manufacturing back to our state."

Energy from the grassroots

Of all the key players and forces involved in the fight for the Bight, there's perhaps none as vital as the many dedicated grassroots advocates who ultimately provide the political will needed to move the whole project forward.

Theirs is the story that rarely gets reported, but that makes the headlines possible. It's the story of the 300-plus everyday Marylanders who made an offshore wind conference in December the biggest policy specific citizen's conference Annapolis has likely ever seen. It's the story of the advocates who fought for years to make the Cape Wind project a reality. And it's the story that political leaders like Governor O'Malley listen to and take inspiration from.

What's in it for these citizen advocates? Everything. They know that offshore wind means reliable jobs, reliable energy costs, a reliable climate, and lower health costs. And along with East Coast governors, the Obama administration, Google, and the steelworkers, these grassroots champions are writing themselves into the history books. Working free of charge, they're helping to build a not-so-distant future when people no longer look to the Middle East, but to the U.S. Mid-Atlantic for visions of energy abundance.

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