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Texas enters race to go offshore -- Oil and gas experience

Texas is poised to add 150 MW of offshore wind power to its traditionally oil-heavy energy mix. The Texas General Land Office and Galveston-Offshore Wind, a division of Wind Energy Systems Technologies (WEST), announced plans in October for the project in the Gulf of Mexico. That puts Texas, along with New York and Massachusetts, in an unofficial race to become the first offshore wind facility in the US.

"We've got the first signed lease," says Jim Suydam of the Texas General Land Office, an agency charged with maximising state revenues. "I guess it's a race to see who gets their blades up first. We'd like it to be us," he says, although he assures that being first is not what is driving development." The state of Texas expects to receive $26.5 million in royalties over the 30-year life of the lease. That money will go to the state's Permanent School Fund to help pay for public education.

"Our plan has been approved and we're marching ahead," says WEST CEO Herman Schellstede. "We feel like we have the experience and the infrastructure to expedite this project. Our early indicators suggest that the winds are viable and we have a very short run to reach the shore -- only seven or eight miles of cable." Specific plans are to build 50 turbines about seven miles off the coast of Galveston Island. Construction costs could reach $300 million.

Schellstede's company has ties to Shell, the American Bureau of Shipping, and two major environmental groups, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. His father was involved in building the first oil platform in the Gulf in the 1940s -- the subject of a 1953 movie, Thunder Bay.

The research phase of the project, expected to last 12 to 18 months, can start immediately and will include building a pair of 80-metre towers for collecting data to help determine the exact site of the development. The plan is already approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which until recently was responsible for construction in coastal waters, while approval from the Mineral Management Service is not required because the offshore target area is controlled by the state. Research will also include bird-mortality mitigation and other impact studies, along with taking hurricanes into account.

Hurricanes no object

"Some people think it's a foolish idea to put wind farms in that part of the country and we don't agree," says Schellstede who is based in Louisiana. "We've been building offshore platforms for oil and gas for 37 years and we have the knowledge and methods of preparing for Class-5 hurricanes. We've seen fifty to eighty foot waves come through oil platforms and winds that can gust up to 220mph. We're using those criteria for our design."

Equipment suppliers have not yet been selected, Schellstede says. "But the turbines will be designed for salt air and we're negotiating that purchase on several fronts. It's very important to survive the salt air atmosphere. We think our experience with drilling platforms gives us an advantage. We know that the standard systems for land won't work offshore." Schellstede is admittedly optimistic in seeing early 2008 as a goal for producing power. But, thus far, the project has seen no opposition.

"We have a friendly coastline here," he says. "By that I mean the fisheries and sportsman love us because we cater to fishing grounds. We're also taking a hard study of bird issues. We want to be good citizens," he adds. There's no secret that we need the energy and that wind power can provide it."

Suydam shares Schellstede's enthusiasm. "Texans have a history of looking out on the coast and seeing big offshore rigs," he says. "So it won't be surprising for Texans to look out from the beach and see some wind turbines spinning."

The project will help Texas meet its long term sustainable energy goals. Recent legislation requires that the state aim for renewable energy capacity to hit 10,000 MW by 2025. It now has approximately 2000 MW, but most of that is located in the western part of the state where winds are sporadic and grid capacity has been reached. The coastal area provides close proximity to population centres and consistent winds. Texas currently ranks second in the nation behind California in electricity generated by wind. "Wind people will find that Texas is easy to do business with," says Suydam. "I think offshore wind will explode here. We have 367 miles of coastline and we expect to build a lot of these things."

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