Analysis: Offshore Wind Progress In Texas

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to forward the cleantech revolution discussion, is proud to present this column via a cross post from our partner Offshore Wind Wire. Author credit goes to Todd Griset.

Combining famously big geography with a culture supportive of energy development, Texas offers attractive locations for offshore wind projects.  Several developers have proposed Texas offshore wind projects, including projects off south Texas proposed by the Baryonyx Corporation.  The regulatory structure applied to these projects may give Texas unique advantages in pursuing offshore wind.

Named for a genus of fish-eating dinosaur known from fossil records, Baryonyx was founded by the veteran developers of the now-operating Ormonde Offshore Wind Farm in the Irish Sea.  Baryonyx has proposed two offshore wind projects located entirely within Texas-jurisdictional waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

image via Shutterstock

The Mustang Project would be located off Nueces County, about 25 miles from Corpus Christi.  Baryonyx suggests that the site has the potential to accommodate about 200 turbines; using 6 megawatt turbines, the Mustang Project could have an installed capacity of up to 1.2 gigawatts.  Baryonyx leased about 26,210 acres 5 to 10 miles from land from the Texas General Land Office, in water depths ranging from 55 to 75 feet.

The Rio Grande Project would be split across two sites (Rio Grande North and Rio Grande South) off South Padre Island.  These sites are about 34 miles northeast of Brownsville, and range from 5 to 10 miles offshore.  Baryonyx suggests that each site has the potential to accommodate about 160 turbines, resulting in an installed capacity of about 1 gigawatt for each half of the Rio Grande Project.  Baryonyx leased about 40,000 more acres from the Texas General Land Office for the Rio Grande sites, in water depths ranging from 55 to 88 feet.

These two offshore wind projects will complement two terrestrial wind projects under development in Texas by Baryonyx.  The company’s business model also includes supplying data centers with 100% renewable power from Baryonyx-owned assets under long-term contracts at fixed prices. Data centers are significant consumers of electricity, and represent a growing sector of electricity consumption as the demand for data storage and processing increases.

Thanks to the way Texas broke from Mexico in 1836, Texas controls far more of the continental shelf than do most other states.  Texas has jurisdiction over its offshore resources up to three marine leagues (about 10 miles) from shore, while other coastal states (all but Florida, and the territory of Puerto Rico) only have jurisdiction over the first three nautical miles out from shore.  As a result, developers must lease submerged land sites from the Texas General Land Office instead of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.  Some observers believe that this localized control of the offshore resource will lead to choices that are more favorable to project developers.  For example, concerns of neighboring states may be less likely to play a role in the Texas agency’s decision to lease sites than if a federal agency controlled the leasing process.

Even though the projects are proposed in state waters, some federal regulatory approvals are needed.  For example, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has jurisdiction over obstructions to the navigable capacity of waters pursuant to Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, as well as authority over dredging and filling of navigable waters under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.  Baryonyx has applied to the Army Corp for these permits for its Texas projects.

The Army Corps recently decided to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement analysis of Baryonyx’s proposal.  Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Army Corps and other federal agencies must perform an environmental impact study before taking actions “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment”.  An EIS represents the most stringent and thorough federal analysis of environmental impacts of an offshore wind project.

Despite a June 2011 public notice by the Army Corps suggesting that “preliminary review of this application indicates that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is not required”, environmental groups and Baryonyx itself expressed interest in having a full environmental study performed given the project’s magnitude and its potentially first-in-Texas status.  As a result, the Army Corps has decided to move forward with the full EIS, a decision Baryonyx appears to have welcomed.

The study will be prepared by third-party contractors selected by the Army Corps over the next two years.  After the EIS is complete, construction on the projects could start as early as 2015.