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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Derrick Z. Jackson

Politics imperil offshore wind sweet spots

With the wind figuratively in his sails, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the Offshore Wind Power USA conference in Boston on Tuesday that not only had wind become the nation’s top source of new electricity in 2012, but that there are enough “sweet spots” in Massachusetts ocean waters to power 1.7 million homes. “We control the ocean floor,” Salazar said. “We get to decide what it is that happens.”

But Salazar was also quite clear that control does not necessarily mean development for wind. His sweet spots remain imperiled by the Republicans’ sour opposition to renewable energy production tax credits. The credits were extended for one more year in the end-of-the-year fiscal cliff negotiations. But thousands of jobs were lost with the uncertainty of an extension.

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“We have this start-and-stop, start-and-stop kind of mentality,” Salazar said in his speech. In an interview afterwards, he said the best way to stop that mentality was for the United States to implement multi-year production credits and finally adopt a national clean energy standard on the level of California’s. That state has set a goal of getting 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020; it has a cap-and-trade program that currently covers electric power plants and large industrial plants, but will phase in heating and transportation fuels in 2015.

California is now “the greatest consumer of solar and wind and geothermal energy in the nation,’’ Salazar said. He said California is significantly ahead of Congress because the state has a renewable energy standard — which was implemented by a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and carried on by Democrat Jerry Brown.

“When I think about the fact that we’ve doubled renewable energy in the last four years,” Salazar added, “that’s a huge achievement. But that also could come to an end” if there is no national policy on renewable energy standards.

The United States needs to implement national energy standards on the level of California’s.

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A national policy would need to include a cap-and-trade program. Cap-and-trade forces polluters to pay for emissions, theoretically prodding companies to adopt cleaner and more energy efficient technologies. President Obama’s bid for a national cap-and-trade collapsed with the failure to win approval for a sweeping climate change bill. The primary opponents were Republicans, Democrats from fossil fuel states, and energy companies. But states — including Massachusetts — have been trying to forge a renewable energy future with such initiatives as the nine-state Northeast regional cap-and-trade program for power plant emissions

Kyle Aarons, a fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said that despite Obama’s high-profile advocacy of renewable energy in his State of the Union address, only 30 states have adopted renewable energy standards, and most states without them are Republican strongholds that soundly voted against Obama for president.

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“No two state policies are alike, and we’re not really anticipating much progress on new states,” Aarons said. “I wouldn’t say we’re stuck on renewables overall. We have a lot of potential to still catch up. Onshore wind will still probably do well, but without a national policy, I would imagine that offshore, being newer, will be pretty slow.”

Rick Sullivan, Massachusetts secretary for energy and environmental affairs, agreed, saying in a telephone interview that a national policy would likely speed up offshore wind development. “I think you’d not only see more permits, but faster permitting should allow developers to take advantage of the most up-to-date wind technology out there rather than it taking years to put up something that may be outdated,” Sullivan said.

Being outdated weighed heavily on the minds of participants at the offshore conference. While Cape Wind and Block Island’s Deepwater Wind are finally poised to plunge their first platforms into the water, Europe had a record year in offshore wind development, installing 369 turbines. Denmark announced it now gets 30 percent of energy from wind.

Investors at the conference said billions of dollars are sitting on the sidelines as America’s wind potential waits for a national policy. Deepwater Wind board manager Bryan Martin gave credit to Salazar for getting wind energy as far as he has, “but we’re tapped out on the state-by-state model.” The White House and Congress must tap into a national model, or the United States will remain on the sidelines for good.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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