Bring on the offshore wind power, US enviros demand

Keep the pressure on, Mr. President – that was the message recently from a broad coalition of US environmental movers and shakers hopeful of seeing wind turbines sending clean power ashore as soon as possible.

“For the sake of our environment and the prospects of a vibrant clean energy economy in America, we must have numerous wind farms spinning off our shores within the next few years – and we need your continued leadership to make that vision a reality,” some 217 environmental groups and stakeholders said in a letter to the president [PDF].

The coalition credited the Obama administration for finally putting offshore wind on the energy radar in the United States, but pointed to the striking contrast between Europe and the make its point that more needs to be done here.

The U.S. Department of Energy says the country could easily deploy 54 gigagwatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030, but so far, none has gone in. Meanwhile, Europe is going great guns on offshore wind: According to the European Wind Energy Association [PDF], as of the end of June, Europe had 1,503 grid-connected offshore wind turbines in 56 wind farms across 10 countries, for a total capacity of 4.3 GW.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s “Smart from the Start” program is unfolding, and areas for wind development have been identified off Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, with the Carolinas next in line for assessment. The program’s goal is tackle the daunting environmental and bureaucratic challenges in a systematic way that avoids the stop-start, lawsuit-ridden process that has characterized the Cape Wind project off Massachusetts.

Earlier this month, the administration published an environmental assessment for commercial wind leases and site assessment off Rhode Island and Massachusetts that “puts Interior in position to offer this area as one of the nation’s first offshore competitive lease sales before the end of the year,” the Department of the Interior said.

But even that won’t ensure offshore wind power will soon be on its way. As Offshore Wind Wire reported recently, “If and when a lessee is prepared to propose wind energy generation on its lease, the lessee would submit a Construction and Operation Plan (COP) for Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approval.  If a COP is submitted, BOEM would then prepare a separate site- and project-specific NEPA analysis to evaluate the potential environmental and socioeconomic consequences associated with the proposed project when considering whether to approve, approve with modification, or disapprove the COP.”

And that doesn’t even get into the financing side of the question, which only appears increasingly daunting given Congressional reluctance to maintain incentives for renewable energy development. While much attention has been focused on the expiring production tax credit for wind power, a key priority for the wind power industry ingeneral, the coalition said “offshore wind energy needs a long-term extension of its investment tax credit.”

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced just such a measure last year – it would continue the 30 percent tax credit for the first 3,000 megawatts of wind placed into service – but have failed to push the legislation to passage.

Skepticism that this new call for action will have much impact is understandable, but at the very least it shows an environmental community united on the necessity to move forward on offshore wind. 

The range of groups behind the letter was impressive, including national heavyweights like the National Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, high-profile regional groups and leaders along the East Coast, and even the New Jersey group Grandmothers Mothers and More for Energy Safety.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling