U.S. Offshore Wind Realizing the Power of a Plan

It’s been a decade since Cape Wind left jaws agape with its plan for a 420-megawatt offshore wind development in Nantucket Sound. While the plan in the backyard of the rich and famous hasn’t yet led to the nation’s first offshore wind farm, the Massachusetts project has made it easier for other developers to warm up for a game that has yet to start.

What the countless lawsuits, political posturing and fits have done is define some clarity for who’s in charge and who will lead the process forward.

So even without a tangible project in the water, it was still heartening for those who back wind energy to see Interior Secretary Ken Salazar touring the northeast on a recent mission to draw developers and the public into a new energy frontier. It’s going to take a strong federal presence to foster projects that could ultimately benefit residents up and down the East Coast.

The federal government last year launched the “Smart from the Start” initiative to help speed along siting, leasing and construction of offshore developments. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) has already designated areas off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and it says it plans to start issuing leases as early as 2012.

Now attention is turning to the northeast, where it all started. Cape Wind has always been seen as innovative. What it lacked for many years, though, were the benefits of an initial coordinated effort that included the statehouse and the halls of Congress.

Now large areas south of where Cape Wind now holds its lease could reap the benefits of a coordinated strategy. Designated areas are under consideration off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and they have the support from the governors of both states as well as key Congressional leaders. That’s because they see this coordinated effort as a jobs creator as much as an energy solution.

“There is no single project that has a better hope for a significant change in unemployment,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, said during Salazar’s visit to Rhode Island, which has suffered from double-digit unemployment.

The federal agency is opening up the dialogue to hear input about what it calls “important environmental and/or socio-economic issues.” Once leases are issued, they’d still be up for environmental review and additional public comment. This strategy effectively gives developers the confidence that with a process in place, their projects will be decided on their merits rather than their ability to outlast opponents in court. They are likely further emboldened by recent rulings approved by FERC that could impact the Atlantic Wind Connection, a proposed offshore transmission backbone stretching from Virginia to New Jersey — and conceivably beyond.

Deepwater Wind has recently proposed building a 1,000-MW wind farm in a 285-square mile area between Block Island off Rhode Island and Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts. Neptune Wind also plans to propose a 500-MW development in the area. Reports have indicated that Cape Wind could even explore projects in this area.

We won’t know for a while whether these efforts will pay off with actual developments producing real power to real communities. And it’s not quite a federal energy policy. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that a little guidance and leadership from governor’s offices to Capitol Hill will go a long way to ensure the confidence of developers.

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Steve Leone has been a journalist for more than 15 years and has worked for news organizations in Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia and California.

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