Fri, Apr 30, 2010 - Page 9 News List

A crucial step for offshore wind power

While Europe already has hundreds of offshore wind farms and China is about to inaugurate its first, the US lags behind in this bracket of the renewable energy race

By Tom Zeller Jr  /  NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

More than 800 giant wind turbines spin off the coasts of Denmark, Britain and seven other European countries, generating enough electricity from strong ocean breezes to power hundreds of thousands of homes. China’s first offshore wind farm, a 102-megawatt venture near Shanghai, goes online this month, with more in the pipeline.

Despite a decade of efforts, however, not a single offshore turbine has been built in the US.

Experts say progress has been slowed by a variety of factors, including poor economics, an uncertain regulatory framework and local opposition.

When the administration of US President Barack Obama announces a decision this week on the most prominent project — Cape Wind, off the coast of Massachusetts — it could have implications from Long Island to Lake Erie. An approval from US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar might well nudge the project to completion as the nation’s first offshore wind farm. On the other hand, some developers say a thumbs-down could gut the US’ offshore wind industry before it ever really gets started.

“It is imperative that Cape Wind gets built — we need the momentum,” said Peter Giller, chief executive of OffshoreMW, an upstart developer with ambitions to build two 700-megawatt projects off the shores of New Jersey and Massachusetts.

At least half a dozen offshore wind projects that could provide electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers have already been proposed in the shallow waters off the East Coast and the Great Lakes. Even more are in the paper-napkin stage, including a project that would place a bank of turbines about 21km off the Rockaway peninsula in New York.

Although offshore wind farms are roughly twice as expensive as land-based ones, developers and advocates say offshore projects have several advantages. Sea and lake breezes are typically stronger, steadier and more reliable than wind on land. Offshore turbines can also be located close to the power-hungry populations along the coasts, eliminating the need for new overland transmission lines. And if the turbines are built far enough from shore, they do not significantly alter the view — a major objection from many local opponents.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that about 90,000 megawatts of electricity could be extracted from offshore winds in US coastal waters less than 30m deep, the easiest and most cost-effective depths. Most of that potential lies in New England, the mid-Atlantic and the Great Lakes.

If the handful of US projects on the drawing board are built as planned, they would produce 2,500 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association, or about as much as two mid-size nuclear power plants.

The Cape Wind project would place 130 turbines, each 135m tall, over 38km2 of Nantucket Sound at a likely cost of more than US$1 billion.

Opponents have argued that the venture is too expensive and would interfere with local fishermen, intrude on the sacred rituals and submerged burial grounds of two local Indian tribes and destroy the view.

“Cape Wind’s oversized costs do not represent a reasonable return on the public’s investment,” Joseph Kennedy II, the former congressman and president of the Citizens Energy Corp, a Boston nonprofit group, wrote in a letter to the Cape Cod Times in February.

Kennedy’s family owns property that looks out on the proposed wind farm site.

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