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Study boosts notion of offshore wind production

Feb 9, 2010 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Timothy B. Wheeler The Baltimore Sun

Offshore wind energy can furnish Marylanders with as much as two-thirds of the electricity they currently use, and if aggressively developed, could turn the state into a net exporter of power, a new report by the Abell Foundation says.

About 2,900 wind turbines could be placed using current technology in relatively shallow Atlantic waters 28 miles to 43 miles off the Maryland coast, according to the report, which was written by researchers at the University of Delaware's Center for Carbon-free Power Integration. As many as 12,000 turbines ultimately could be deployed, the researchers say, as new wind generators are developed that can operate in deeper ocean waters, including on floating platforms.

"There is, if Maryland so chooses, a significant opportunity to develop a very robust offshore wind energy economy and create a new economic and job base in the state," said Jeremy Firestone, an associate professor and lead author of the study. Capitalizing on offshore wind energy also could significantly reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions and improve overall air quality in the state, he added.

The report, commissioned by the Baltimore-based foundation, comes as state and federal governments press to exploit the energy-generating potential of strong winds that regularly blow off the nation's coasts.

The Maryland Energy Administration is seeking expressions of interest from developers for placing turbines off the state's shoreline, and has received five partial proposals to date.

The agency also is working with the Department of Natural Resources and other state and federal authorities to identify potential environmental impacts, as well as possible conflicts with shipping and fishing activities.

Ross Tyler, director of clean energy for the state energy agency, said the Abell report tends to confirm the state's own analysis of the potential for offshore wind, though the O'Malley administration is not looking to carpet the ocean with industrial-scale windmills.

"We're not looking to fill every spot out there with wind turbines," Tyler said, just to put up enough to meet the state's renewable energy goal. Maryland law calls for getting 20 percent of the state's electricity from renewable sources such as wind and sun by 2022 -- up from about 4.5 percent now.

The Abell report acknowledges that the number of turbines that could be potentially installed might need to be pared back by as much as a third to leave lanes for ships entering or exiting Delaware Bay and traversing the coast. The Delaware researchers also suggest keeping the turbines at least nine miles off the coast to limit their visibility from the resort hotels and boardwalk of Ocean City and from the beach at Assateague National Seashore. Bluewater Wind, a New Jersey firm, has proposed putting turbines at least 12 miles off the Delaware and Maryland coasts.

Wind turbines have been generating power offshore in Europe for years, but none has been placed off the U.S. coast. Plans are moving ahead to lease turbine sites off several Atlantic states, and Maryland's university system has contracted to buy 55 megawatts of power from the Delaware offshore facility proposed by Bluewater Wind. The administration also has asked lawmakers to change Maryland's coastal protection law so power cables can be strung ashore from turbines off the state's shoreline.

Firestone said construction of offshore wind farms in Delaware and Maryland could boost manufacturing and employment in both states. "You may only get a turbine factory in one state, but there's a very large supply chain involved and many components."

Land-based wind farms, particularly those being developed along mountaintops and ridges in the mid-Atlantic, have proven controversial. Opponents complain they mar mountain vistas, but also that they pose hazards for migrating bats and birds, and chew up wildlife habitat while generating at best modest energy. A federal judge recently halted construction of a West Virginia wind farm out of concern it might harm federally protected Indiana bats, prompting the developer to pare back the number of wind turbines to win over opponents.

Offshore wind farms haven't generated the same level of opposition here yet, though the proposed Capewind project off Cape Cod in Massachusetts has been stalled by objections from landowners and from Native Americans, who contend the turbines will despoil traditional offshore burial grounds.

Norman Meadow of the Maryland Conservation Council said his group's members have great concerns about the potential ecological impacts of large-scale deployment of wind turbines offshore, which he said have not been adequately studied. He contended that a few nuclear reactors like the new one proposed at Calvert Cliffs could generate as much power on just a few acres of land as the 2,900 turbines spread across 800 square miles of water that the Delaware researchers said could potentially be used.

Firestone acknowledged that large-scale offshore wind might have ecological impacts and require additional power lines and even power plants to accommodate it.

"Yeah, you're going to kill some birds and, yes, there are probably some places you don't want to put wind turbines," he said. "But as a general rule, almost anything else is going to cause more impacts than wind power."

Gwynne Schultz of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said her office is still pulling together an ecological profile of the offshore region and hopes to glean more information. The agency plans to seek public feedback in a month or two on what it has compiled so far.

Other issues to be resolved include the likely need to upgrade and expand the electric grid along the shore to bring the wind-generated power ashore and get it to population centers. Natural gas-fired powers plants might be needed to stabilize the electricity supplied on the grid, since wind turbines don't generate much power when breezes die down. High-tension power lines proposed into central Maryland and under the Chesapeake Bay and across the Delmarva Peninsula have been held up amid intense opposition.

"If Maryland is really going to use that resource, you would need to build some kind of transmission," said Willett Kempton, a Delaware professor and director of its carbon-free energy center. But major upgrades in the grid would not be needed to handle modest amounts of offshore wind to start, he noted.

Environmental impacts deserve more intense scrutiny before turbines start getting installed, Kempton said.

"You will kill some birds," he acknowledged, with the turbines' massive rotors. But he contended that the impact on birds would be small, especially compared with other things that kill them. Fish should thrive, though, he said, because the turbines would serve as artificial "reefs" for swimming creatures.

Monty Hawkins, a party boat captain from Ocean City, shares the view that turbines probably will help rather than hurt fish populations. But to be sure, he hopes government biologists will study the ocean waters and bottom more carefully, especially to safeguard existing colonies of cold-water corals he's seen and filmed miles off Ocean City.