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Head of BOEM Details Offshore Wind Challenges, Key Strategies

Tommy Beaudreau has just one energy-related photo hanging in his otherwise sparse Washington office.

It’s of a sprawling — some would say majestic — offshore wind farm. But as the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), this isn’t a reflection of where’s he’s been. Rather, it serves as an inspiration for what he wants to accomplish.

In addition to BOEM’s broad oversight of oil and gas leasing, Beaudreau’s office is in charge of setting the stage for America’s offshore wind industry. But it’s been slow going, and the U.S. is still awaiting its first offshore development. The picture he looks at every day is of an offshore wind farm off the coast of Denmark, and it’s become a guiding light of sorts for the first head of a department created less than two years ago.

BOEM has been busy since its 2011 creation as it works to administer Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s Smart from the Start initiative to methodically create a vibrant offshore wind industry. Beaudreau relayed the status of the program and spent some time hearing from those in the fledgling American offshore wind industry during a recent stop at the Energy Ocean International conference just north of Boston.

While many in the industry lament the slow course being taken off the coastal waters of the Atlantic, Beaudreau assured attendees of the conference, which included those in the even more nascent wave and tidal industries, that the offshore program is of vital interest to the Obama administration.

In fact, when BOEM was launched, it came during the tense aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even then, said Beaudreau, he was told by Salazar “under no uncertain terms” that BOEM’s renewable energy program was one of the top two or three priorities for the entire Department of the Interior.

“He said he wanted BOEM to lead and promote the development in an aggressive way but to continue doing it in the right way,” said Beaudreau.

Salazar wanted BOEM to be aggressive because offshore wind has already proven itself to be a technologically viable resource in the shallow waters of Northern Europe. That’s brought lots of investment and lots of industry to places like the United Kingdom, which sees itself as taking a lead in the growing global industry.

The waters off America’s Atlantic coast have the potential to be a 1,000-gigawatt resource — and the same is true for the much deeper waters off the West Coast where developers are waiting for floating technology that would open up that region.

The sheer size of the resource and the proven track record in Europe has clearly pushed offshore wind up the administration’s to-do list. But to get there, BOEM has had to lay much of the foundation for an industry eager to get started.

How to get there has been a painstaking process filled with what Beaudreau calls “chicken-and-egg problems.”

“Who should make the first move? How will the leasing process fit with DOE funding and state incentives? How will generation fit with transmission? How will commercial realities fit with long-term investment and the construction generation cycle for these projects? How will leasing fit with wind farm configuration and emerging and evolving technologies?”

It’s a lot to deal with for an industry that won’t have the luxury of ramping up with smaller projects before building the behemoths that give it the most favorable economics. So the industry is gearing up to go from zero to 60 in a short time span even as those most affected by these giant developments learn about their potential impacts.

“How do we fulfill that potential, how do we get there?,” said Beaudreau. “There are a lot of exciting opportunities out there. There are lots of visionaries, a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of true believers and no shortage of skeptics and naysayers as well.

“Sometimes when you look at [the obstacles] it can be overwhelming. But the key is not to be paralyzed by all the issues but rather maintain enthusiasm.”

Beaudreau offered some key points that could help some of these projects get to open water.

  • Bring stakeholders together early on. This is a key point that has derailed many projects, and sent others on the slow detour of litigation. Beaudreau suggests meeting early and often with those who could be most impacted by a project — people like environmental leaders, state task forces, Native American groups, nearby residents and those dependent on the fishing industry. This can be an arduous process, he said, but getting that early buy-in helps ease the time and costs of getting a project off the ground.
  • Build confidence between states and the industry. Many states are vying to become manufacturing and installation hubs that will serve an offshore industry. Displaying unity and having a common vision can help rally even greater support from taxpayers and potential employees.
  • Beaudreau said his department needs to get leasing rights into the right hands. By that, he means that the department needs to consider how motivated a developer is before granting the rights to a pre-designated offshore wind area. “Once these leases are issued, then they need to diligently pursue them. We’ll help where we can. We can help make sure that these opportunities don’t lie fallow.”
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