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States sharing the sea for wind industry

Sept 9, 2009 - Evan Lehmann - The New York Times

BOSTON -- Plans are brewing to promote a network of offshore wind farms all along the East Coast connected by a transmission "spine" and shared shipping ports where local turbines will embark for deepwater power fields over the horizon.

A unique collaborative will emerge this fall that aims to temper the fierce competition among seaside states racing to build the first -- or second and third -- offshore project into a national effort to construct a whole fleet of them. Officials in coastal states and industry leaders are organizing the group, which aims to provide an influential voice for the nation's infant offshore effort.

The group will focus on cooperation. Shared facilities like manufacturing "headquarters" and maintenance stations could surface to give the offshore industry -- not single farms -- a foothold in North America. Ships and standards are needed. So are new transmission lines and federal cash for the development of cheaper and better turbines.

Those things might make the East Coast, which has long relied on Midwestern electricity, a major contributor of clean power. It could also help the United States atone for its surrender to Europe years ago of onshore wind manufacturing by seizing the lead in the industry's seaborne counterpart.

"There's a difference between having a bunch of projects and having an industry," said Greg Watson, a senior energy adviser to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and a leader of the group. "An industry requires infrastructure ... and a lot of things we feel are going to require states to work together and collaborate."

Cape Wind will share water with 'many other wind farms'

The U.S. Offshore Wind Collaborative, as the group is called, is inviting industry leaders, environmentalists and others to join its board of directors. Officials from clean-energy offices in states along the East Coast and the Great Lakes are "on board" to provide technical expertise, Watson said. Texas and California are also expressing support for the program. The group will formally unveil itself this fall.

The timing is ripe. The U.S. Interior Department recently unveiled rules for leasing areas of the ocean floor to renewable energy developers. And states are coming to grips with the likelihood that Cape Wind will be the first farm in the water. The Interior Department is poised to release its final decision on the Nantucket Sound project soon.

"The ground rules have been established. I think that's why you're seeing this collaborative really emerge," said Jim Gordon, who is proposing the 130-turbine Cape Wind project. "Now it's time to develop effective policies that will tap into this huge offshore wind potential that can contribute to solving some of these environmental and energy challenges we face."

"I know that one day, Cape Wind will be sharing the East Coast with many other wind farms," Gordon added. He has been invited to sit on the collaborative's board of directors, a post he would be "honored" to accept.

The collaborative is working to get a nonprofit designation. It won't endorse individual projects, but will push for policies that strengthen the offshore landscape in the United States.

Honing America's edge with wind

That means money. Federal research funding is needed to develop new types of turbines that can be placed farther from shore in deeper, rougher water, Watson says. That could separate the United States from Europe, which is "marinizing" onshore turbines for ocean uses.

"The makeup of their [European] outer continental shelf -- they've got a lot of protected shallow water in the U.K. and Denmark, so they can pretty much use current technology and still expand their offshore wind base," Watson said. "The United States won't be able to do that. So if we really get our act together, we're going to be forced to develop the more advanced technologies out of necessity. And that can give us a technological edge. At least, that's the thinking."

The notion of a "super grid" is another puzzle piece. Seafloor transmission lines could connect offshore wind facilities to each other, plugging into substations near cities that need the power. That could alleviate congested inland power lines heading to the coast, making for a more stable grid, supporters say.

That short, straight shot of power to refrigerators and air conditioners appeals to offshore developers and climate advocates. The East Coast uses a major amount of the nation's energy, but has little land to produce onshore wind power. And funneling renewable electricity from the windy Midwest poses problems, including infrastructure costs, property rights, varying state rules and seepage from the lines.

"If you're going to put a power line in somebody's backyard, you have to pay them," said Peter Mandelstam, president of Bluewater Wind and another invitee to join the collaborative as a director. "Well, there's no backyard in the ocean."

'Brick and mortar' of a new industry

Offshore wind might turn current ideas about transmitting power sideways. As states seek to achieve their renewable energy goals, more electricity from wind will be needed. And if onshore breezes fail to blow, interior states might need clean energy from the coasts.

"It would work both ways, right? You could export electricity from the Midwest to the East, but you could also transport electricity from the coasts westward," said Watson.

"We're just beginning to see that we have both the potential and the need to organize the East Coast states, because all of a sudden, we have a resource that's strategically important," he added. "We've been importing all of our energy. Now, all of sudden, we have a strategic resource, and it's plentiful."

The group will focus on education. It plans to develop a "clearinghouse" Web site where developers and manufacturers can find the latest regulations, projects and legislation on the offshore industry. It will also publish a lengthy white paper this fall with industry details for politicians and policymakers.

"This is a new thing. There's nothing like it," said Walt Musial, an expert on wind energy technology with the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "I think the collaborative has a chance to make a big contribution to what's about to happen. They add brick and mortar to the offshore wind industry."

The consortium has not yet developed specific policies it will pursue. But Gordon, of Cape Wind, offered one idea. He hopes the group pushes Congress to extend the production tax credit for wind, which provides developers with a subsidy of 2.1 cents for every kilowatt-hour of power produced for 10 years.

Climate change, not turbines, the big threat to oceans

The credit for wind was extended through 2012 under the economic stimulus plan, but other renewable power sources received longer time frames. Hydro, geothermal, municipal solid waste and bioenergy projects can tap the savings through 2013, though the credit is only 1 cent per kilowatt-hour. The benefit will shine on solar through 2016.

Gordon believes offshore wind should enjoy a longer period of benefits, given the length of the approval process and the infancy of the industry.

"It would make a lot of sense to extend it to 2016," he said.

Offshore wind projects are not without controversy. There's real concern about turbines' effects on marine habitat and sea life. The group wants to include those worries in the planning process for a wider offshore industry so that solutions are available for individual projects in the future.

"People are concerned about the future of the oceans, in terms of the ecosystem and all," said Watson. "We think we have an argument to say that one of the biggest challenges facing the ocean environment is climate change. And that the ocean can provide an environment where some of the solutions to this can actually be sited if it's done right."