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United States

Americans seek offshore answers

Offshore wind energy is new to the United States -- with only two serious project proposals on the board now for New York and Massachusetts. The huge potential for wind development onshore in most of America means there is not the same pressure on land as in crowded Europe providing the impetus for developers to seek sites at sea.

"It came as a little unexpected -- it didn't seem productive for the effort," said Bob Thresher of America's first two offshore project proposals. Thresher is director of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). "But there are load centres nearby, and high electricity needs in California and New England. From an industry point of view -- with no grid problems, high prices, a tax credit, short transmission to shore -- it looks like a very juicy area of opportunity." Thresher attended the event with environmental specialist Bonnie Ram, a consultant for the US Department of Energy (DOE).

Thresher said the DOE, of which NREL is a part, does not have an offshore wind energy program. "That's why we're here. Basically we're playing catch-up, tapping the European experience to learn as much as we can. What to do, where to start? We really don't know the offshore potential in the US. Is it 100 or 1000 gigawatt? We need to look at water depths, resource assessment, different technologies in shallow and deep water, consult with industry, key regulatory agencies...," he said.

In the US, Ram added, the Department of Defence's Army Corps of Engineers issues the main permit for offshore installations. Previously, this covered mining and petroleum. "But there's no legal basis for wind," she said. "What do they do with a thing like a windmill? It doesn't extract anything from the sea or seabed. Who's in charge?"

Thresher said the 470 MW Cape Cod, Massachusetts, project and the 100-140 MW Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) project in New York are offering interesting, diverging views into how different regulatory and permitting processes can pan out. Cape Cod, which has received a huge amount of protest from wealthy, powerful summer home owners, is in federal waters (the developer has had to work with 17 co-operating agencies); LIPA is in state waters, and the people who can see the wind farm from shore are the ones who will benefit from it, Thresher said. "And from NREL's point of view, we want to know the different processes at work here -- a public utility versus private developer."

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