By Rebecca Kessler, Climate Central
Europe is having a love affair with offshore wind-energy farms, and no wonder. The wind is stronger and steadier out at sea than it is on most land areas, and you can build turbines close to population centers without having to compete for real estate. Wind power is also one way to meet the world’s growing energy needs without fouling the atmosphere with heat-trapping greenhouse gases. For all these reasons, European nations have already put more than 1,100 turbines out at sea, with more on the way.
In the U.S., by contrast, the number is precisely… zero. Part of the reason: people love the idea of pollution-free wind energy, as long it doesn’t spoil their view, pose a danger to birds, disrupt fishing, or a whole list of other complaints. Exhibit A is the 130-turbine Cape Wind development off Cape Cod, which finally won federal approval last spring, the better part of a decade after it was first proposed, but which still faces lawsuits by aggrieved locals and environmental groups. Cape Wind has also faced hurdles in finding buyers for the electricity the turbines will generate — a challenge faced by other offshore wind energy developers.
But the nation’s smallest state has a big idea about how to streamline the approval process: instead of waiting for developers to take the lead and forcing regulators and residents to react, Rhode Island has created the nation’s first plan that lays out the best places for wind farms to go, and some spots where they can’t. Called the Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or SAMP, it took two years and about $8 million to put together — and the people who created it tried to anticipate as many potential complications as possible. They not only documented wind resources, oceanographic conditions, marine life and human activities that might be affected by wind farms, but also got input from numerous interested parties, including environmental groups, fishermen, boaters, the Narragansett Indian Tribe, and wind energy developers.
The plan instantly turns Rhode Island into a national leader in wind farm development. “[It] is a very strong tool to help us play a significant role in determining how our oceans are used,” says Jennifer McCann of the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, who was a principal architect of the document. “It puts the state of Rhode Island in the driver’s seat. There’s no other state that has this tool.”
The Federal government formally approved the plan for state waters this past summer, and in September gave Rhode Island additional leverage over wind energy projects and other activities in nearby federal waters. “Prior to this year,” said Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at a ceremony in July, “individual proposals for new ocean uses generated conflict that wasted time and energy. By bringing together diverse ocean interests to the table, this plan reduces uncertainty. And in the long run the new plan reduces costs and makes authorization of offshore renewable energy projects more efficient.”
Wind-energy companies seem to agree. Soon after the July event, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the federal government was soliciting proposals for wind energy projects in federal waters off Rhode Island and Massachusetts. As of October 11, eight companies had formally expressed an interest.
One of them is Providence-based Deepwater Wind, which took part in the meetings leading up to the plan. The company has proposed a five-turbine demonstration project in Rhode Island waters that it hopes will beat Cape Wind by becoming the country’s first working offshore wind farm in 2013. “What’s been paramount to us as an industry is that [the SAMP has] provided real renewable energy leadership, which has been absent in many ways up till now,” Paul Rich, Deepwater’s Chief Development Officer for Rhode Island, said at the July event.
This doesn’t mean there won’t be any bumps on the road to building wind farms off the Rhode Island coastline. One controversy, in fact, is already brewing. The SAMP outlines an “area of mutual interest” in federal waters between Rhode Island and Massachusetts as suitable for development — but this area includes some highly productive fishing grounds. Deepwater Wind has also proposed a 200-turbine wind farm that would encroach on some of them. Fishermen, who had initially supported the project, now object to its current configuration.
But the management plan also calls for a Fishermen’s Advisory Board to represent fishery interests in both states. That board is now being created, and Deepwater has already adjusted its project to avoid the most sensitive areas. Both sides have expressed hope that a mutually agreeable solution can be found. Moreover, the management plan says wind farms should not harm fishing, and Rhode Island may now be able to apply this guiding principle in federal waters.
Rhode Island may be the leader, but a few other states, including Massachusetts and Oregon, have undertaken similar ocean zoning efforts, though they have yet to earn NOAA‘s approval. In May, the SAMP’s organizers held a “how to” workshop attended by representatives of states and federal agencies, and several states and countries have looked to Rhode Island for guidance in crafting plans of their own. Rhode Island, meanwhile, announced last spring that it would conduct a SAMP-like zoning study to identify suitable spots for renewable-energy projects on land.
While praising Rhode Island’s management plan as an important step forward, Fara Courtney, executive director of the US Offshore Wind Collaborative, a research and advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looks ahead to a time when ocean planning will be regional, rather than state-by-state. The federal government moved in that direction last fall with a new program called Smart from the Start to identify wind-friendly zones in its Atlantic waters.
Courtney also points out that research and planning can only deliver so much information about the implications of offshore turbines — what’s really needed is experience. “We need to get projects in the water and we need to learn from them,” she says.