Wind power’s future depends on thinking smaller
The killing of Cape Wind brings US offshore wind power back to where it probably should have started: small.
At 130 turbines and 468 megawatts — enough to power 200,000 homes — Cape Wind would have been an ocean wind farm on the same scale of those in Europe. It was paralyzed by selfish and powerful people who feared the views from their seaside mansions would be ruined. With about two dozen lawsuits, they were able to litigate the project into something that became too big to not fail. The Cape Wind project effectively collapsed during the winter, when it missed deadlines for financing, resulting in the termination of its power-purchasing agreements and a lease to use the new port terminal in New Bedford built by the state to handle massive turbine pieces.
Now, with no other large projects fully funded, a major US offshore wind farm will not be built until around 2020, at the earliest. But much has happened since Cape Wind was first proposed in 2001. Then, it was the holy grail for environmentalists in search of wind power. Today, there are several nascent efforts underway that should make it much easier for offshore wind to gain broad-based acceptance.
Providence-based Deepwater Wind recently secured financing for a long-planned 5-turbine, 30-megawatt pilot project three miles off Block Island. The turbines should be spinning by summer 2016. Deepwater Wind chief executive Jeff Grybowski said the project will allow people to “see it, feel it, touch it, and take offshore wind from theory to reality.” To best assure public acceptance, Deepwater Wind scaled back original plans calling for eight turbines to minimize “visual impacts, bottom disturbance, and other potential environmental effects.”
In addition, the Obama administration is supporting offshore pilot projects of similar size off the coasts of Virginia, New Jersey, and Oregon. Deepwater Wind has a stake in the Oregon project. For those mourning the death of Cape Wind, remember that Germany’s offshore program, now 258 turbines strong, began with a 12-turbine project just five years ago. The United Kingdom’s 1,300 turbines began with a two-turbine pilot in 2000.
Offshore wind flourishes in Europe because of environmental policies that encourage public and private investments in renewables. In the US, even the idea of federal tax credits for renewables has failed to gain traction.
That leaves it up to states to act. In Massachusetts, Somerset representative Patricia Haddad filed a bill in January requiring utilities to enter into enough offshore wind contracts by 2030 to exceed the power capacity of four Cape Winds. The action is in response to legislation that died last year that would have brought enough large-scale hydroelectric power down from Canada to possibly wipe out offshore wind development and the jobs it could bring.
Haddad wasn’t always a wind warrior. For years, she supported the once-lucrative Brayton Point coal plant in her district. “We like our taxes low and our air dirty,” she used to joke. But with the plant scheduled to close in 2017, Haddad now says Brayton Point’s transmission infrastructure could be repurposed to bring in electric cables from ocean wind turbines.
Haddad’s bill is likely to face stiff resistance from critics who say offshore wind remains too embryonic an industry to earn such a clean-energy carveout while hydro and onshore wind from Maine may be more readily available. A report published last month by the national Clean Energy Group and Navigant Consulting said the only way offshore wind can be cost competitive is for Northeast states to band together. That way, they could better bargain with the utilities that would buy wind-generated electricity, lower construction costs, and streamline permitting.
Stephanie McClellan, director of the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative on Offshore Wind, said the report’s recommendations make sense. “No state in the US has a comprehensive wind policy to bring in projects at the scale of Europe and at costs ratepayers believe in,” she said at a recent offshore wind conference in Boston.
There are signs of offshore wind interests uniting. Three firms — including Deepwater — hold leases in federal waters farther out to sea than the Cape Wind site, and have formed an alliance called Offshore Wind Massachusetts LLC. The group says it will work with legislators, universities, industry and labor groups to pool resources to speed the planning of large-scale wind farms.
Also, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island last month said they were teaming up to request proposals for large-scale clean energy projects. Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said the partnership would “procure renewable sources of energy in the most cost-effective way possible.”
Whether such a partnership will include offshore wind is unclear. But there is a sense that it can still grow into a major industry. Jim Lanard, former president of the Offshore Wind Developers Coalition, said the United States can learn from 20 years of mistakes and innovations, allowing American wind farm builders to “get to the economies of scale of large projects faster than Europe.”
That, of course, will depend on the scale of cooperation.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.