Eight Years.  That’s how long it took what will likely be the nation’s first offshore wind farm to obtain a federal lease.  It is little wonder, in light of Cape Wind’s struggle, that wind advocates have been pushing for greater federal support.  Earlier this week, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of the Interior continued efforts to answer that call, jointly announcing the release of “A National Offshore Wind Strategy” aimed at developing the tremendous wind resources off the nation’s coastlines.  This interagency effort is backed by 50.5 million dollars in DOE funding to support research and development of offshore wind installations.

The nation’s potential for offshore wind power is impressive: according to DOE, wind resources off the U.S. coastline (including the Great Lakes) could theoretically produce an estimated 4,150 gigawatts (GW) of energy—more than four times the current generating capacity of nation’s electrical system.   As the new strategy recognizes, however, the difference between theory and reality is significant.  Currently, offshore wind farms have considerably higher capital costs than land-based installations, due in part to increased equipment, installation, interconnection, and infrastructure costs.  For example, existing installation and maintenance procedures involve the use of specialized vessels that simply do not exist in the U.S.

Further, as a new industry, offshore wind faces unique and novel permitting challenges.  Multiple state and federal agencies have jurisdiction over the development of offshore wind farms.  In the case of the Great Lakes, for example, DOE notes that eight states and a Canadian province claim jurisdiction—with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers serving as the “lead agency” for purposes of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).  Adding to the complexity is the relative lack of data regarding the environmental and social effects of offshore wind installations.

These hurdles beg the question:  what, specifically, do DOI and DOE intend to do to advance the development of offshore wind? 

The federal wind strategy has clear-cut goals:  achieving 54 GW of deployed offshore wind by 2030 at a cost of 7 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), with an interim goal of 10 GW by 2020 at 10 cents per kWh.  And the funding opportunities are clearly significant—DOE will provide more than 50 million dollars over the next five years to support key research and development activities, including:

  • Technological Development:  DOE will provide up to 25 million over 5 years to develop computational tools and test data for turbine design, as well as the development of hardware such as larger turbines, innovative drivetrains, more sophisticated control systems, support structures, and advanced transmission technologies;
  • Market Barrier Removal:  DOE will provide as much as 18 million over 3 years to support research that will, in part, better identify regulatory risks and potential environmental problems, encourage more accurate valuation of offshore wind development, and promote development of supporting infrastructure such as manufacturing facilities and transmission systems; and
  • Advanced Technology Demonstration:  Finally, DOE will provide up to 7.5 million dollars over the next 3 years to fund the speedy deployment of advanced technologies, which may include field testing of innovative technologies and the installation of initial phases of commercial projects.

With an eye toward the Cape Wind saga, many wind advocates may be particularly concerned with siting and permitting offshore wind installations.  As part of its strategy to reduce market barriers, DOE has pledged to facilitate a proactive approach to the regulatory process—one that will seeks to avoid conflicts on the front-end by prioritizing areas for development and protection.  This approach builds upon the DOI’s “Smart from the Start Initiative,” which seeks to streamline the approval process and implement an expedited leasing framework for areas that are most suitable for wind development because of fewer environmental and use conflicts.  As part of Monday’s joint announcement, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar identified four areas on the mid-Atlantic outer continental shelf that would receive early environmental review.

Coupled with the 90 million dollars allocated to offshore wind research and development in the American Reinvest and Recovery Act, DOE’s 50 million dollar commitment represents a significant federal push for offshore wind.  Despite these efforts, however, there is certainly no guarantee that offshore wind opponents will not delay future projects through litigation.  Ultimately, the proof will be in the turbines. 

For those interested in learning more about the DOE’s efforts to reduce market barriers, as well as its plans to develop and demonstrate new technologies, the Offshore Wind Strategy is available in its entirety at http://ocsenergy.anl.gov/documents/fpeis/index.cfm.