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Analysis: Coal and nuclear on Google AWC offshore line

UNITED STATES: The first leg of the Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC), designed to facilitate a growth in US offshore, could initially transmit electricity generated from coal and nuclear plants.

It also appears that the New Jersey Energy Link (NJEL) — AWC's northern-most phase — could be installed onshore and without wind power.

AWC was proposed in 2010 by Atlantic Grid Development LLC and backed by Google. It has been billed as an HVDC line stretching 350 miles (563 kilometres) off the coasts of New Jersey to Virginia for up to 6GW of offshore wind. Construction of the NJEL could begin as early as 2016 and be completed by 2020.

However, regional grid operator PJM Interconnection said it is now considering a version of the transmission line without wind power. A PJM spokeswoman confirmed: "The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has asked PJM to study the AWC project ... While PJM has already looked at the project with various amounts of wind as part of the scenario, we have now been asked to analyse the project without wind."

The spokeswoman said she was "99% sure" that PJM is currently reviewing an onshore version of the transmission line. Asked for confirmation, she later emailed: "I can't say definitively whether the project is offshore or onshore right now. We've analysed, as I said before, different impacts of the line in our studies — both from onshore and offshore perspectives."

The involvement of Google, which has invested millions in renewables, has added a large degree of legitimacy to the project. Google itself had high hopes for the line and its ability to facilitate offshore wind. Blogging at the AWC announcement in 2010, Google green business operations director Rick Needham said: "The new project can enable the creation of thousands of jobs, improve consumer access to clean energy sources and increase the reliability of the Mid-Atlantic region's existing power grid."

However, Google was unable to comment when asked whether it would back an onshore transmission that does not specifically cater to wind power. Instead a Google spokesman referred the question to Atlantic Grid Development.

AWC declined to answer questions about the current route or purpose of the line. In an emailed statement, the project's CEO Bob Mitchell said: "Since its inception, we have proposed this project as a long-range plan that would be developed in multiple phases over a number of years."

In April, Mitchell was quoted by Environment & Energy as saying: "Right now, we're essentially divorced from offshore wind." Speaking at a forum hosted by the US Energy Association in Washington, DC, he continued: "We and regulators and others have to look at this line as an important link within the existing grid."

Bloomberg New Energy Finance wind analyst Amy Grace said she understands that the project will transmit cheaper electricity from Virginia to high-demand areas where electricity is more expensive, such as New Jersey and New York, a strategy she says that makes sense. "They're not relying on offshore wind farms," she said.

Currently, the $1.8 billion NJEL is being reviewed by PJM – which could include the project in its regional transmission expansion planning, or RTEP process, and by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

New Jersey does have grid congestion, especially for power being sent eastwards. But Stefanie Brand, New Jersey's rate counsel director representing the state's utility customers, said that several transmission lines are already proposed. She said there is no reason to go through the expense of an offshore line if there is no generation in the ocean.

She said she had not heard of plans for it to be onshore, and noted: "[We] would support such a project only if PJM deemed that it was necessary for reliability."

According to Chris Long, offshore wind manager at the American Wind Energy Association, offshore wind has begun to pick up some momentum in the region. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has proposed a lease of wind-development tracts off New Jersey, he noted. The auction could occur within months.

Also Fishermen's Energy's 25MW demonstration off Atlantic City could also proceed, now that a court has ordered the state's Board of Public Utilities to reconsider its rejection of the project earlier this year. And Maryland has passed an offshore wind energy act that supports 200MW of projects.

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