More good than bad for offshore wind -- Regulatory changeover

Opinions are mixed in the wind business about whether a change of authority for permitting and regulation of US offshore wind projects is a good or bad thing. The role so far played by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has now fallen to the Mineral Management Service (MMS), a federal agency that manages natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS).

"I think it's a very good thing that Congress gave MMS authority to grant easements on the OCS," says Mark Rogers of Cape Wind, which is developing a 420 MW wind farm off the Cape Cod shore of Massachusetts. "Over time, the authority that MMS has will provide greater regulatory certainty to the business community, which will encourage greater investments. This is a positive for our project and any project that follows."

But in New York, Bert Cunningham of the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) is taking more of a wait-and-see approach. LIPA filed its application with USACE in April for a 140 MW offshore project in federal waters. "We're still in the process of working through some of the ramifications," Cunningham says. "It's just too soon to tell at this point whether a change of agencies is a plus or minus for us. However -- and this may be a little speculative on my part -- I don't think we're far enough along for it to have a big impact on what we're doing."

An unavoidable downside to the changeover is that timetables of existing projects could be set back a few months as MMS gets up to speed. But although the service says it will issue its own impact statement regarding Cape Wind, it assures it will not be starting over. "We're picking up where the Corps of Engineers left off," says Nicollet Nye of MMS. "We do have to go out and collect new information, but we'll be building on what has already been done."

Rodgers says the changeover could work to simplify a variety of issues. "A project receiving an easement will have a legal, established property interest." And that, he adds, will make it more difficult to challenge rulings in a court of law.

His view is largely shared by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). "The provision in the Energy Policy Act that gives MMS the lead role in developing an overall regulatory regime provides fresh assurance that offshore wind energy development will proceed," says the association's Christine Real de Azua.

Nye of MMS agrees. "Nobody else has really had that authority before the Energy Act passed," she says. "We're going to have the authority on leasing and easement -- and much more broadly than the Corps of Engineers." MMS does not deal with projects proposed within state waters, says the service's Gary Strasburg. "But that can range anywhere from three to twelve miles, so there's no simple rule."

LIPA down to details

The LIPA project's closest point to shore will be 3.6 miles southwest of Robert Moses State Park. "We're just now getting into a more detailed look at birds and marine life but where we've seen some opposition from locals is when it comes to overall aesthetics. Bird and marine issues can be dealt with in a variety of ways but when you come down to the visuals of having windmills in the water, it's in the eye of the beholder and you can't please everyone," says Cunningham. LIPA hopes to have 40 turbines online by summer or fall of 2008.

How best to go about developing the huge US offshore wind resource is the subject of a new report, A Framework for Offshore Wind Energy Development, by the US Department of Energy (DOE), the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and GE Energy. It uses input from a wide range of energy experts to identify the technical, environmental, economic and regulatory issues.

"Tapping into offshore wind energy, a free fuel source that is not impacted by fluctuating prices or volatile fuel import schedules, can offer long term competitive electricity costs," says Jim Lyons of GE Energy. "At the same time, it will provide the US with a means to add additional renewable energy into the nation's electricity mix."

The report offers a variety of suggestions, including the value of achieving public acceptance and the advantages of developing deep-water sites. The DOE estimates that 900,000 MW of wind generation capacity exists within 50 miles of the US coastline and that deep waters off the New England coast offer the greatest potential.