Encouraging Investment Is Key To U.S. Offshore Wind Development

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to bring you interesting cleantech reading, is proud to repost this article courtesy of partner Center for American Progress. Author credit goes to Richard W. Caperton, Michael Conathan, and Jackie Weidman.

More than two decades ago, Denmark built the world’s first offshore wind farm near Copenhagen. Since then offshore wind has been added to the energy portfolio of nine other countries in Europe and Asia. The East Coast of the United States, from the Mid-Atlantic region north through New England, possesses some of the world’s most favorable environmental conditions to tap into this massive renewable energy resource. And even though public opinion throughout the region strongly supports such development, we have yet to begin construction on even a single turbine.

image via Shutterstock

With a stronger commitment from Congress, Atlantic coastal states could advance projects that simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower our dependence on foreign oil, and create jobs and industrial innovation from Maine to the Carolinas.

Yet to take off

2011 was pretty good for advancing the U.S. offshore wind industry in many ways. The Cape Wind project proposed for the waters off Massachusetts received its final permits from the Department of the Interior, theoretically paving the way to begin construction on America’s first offshore wind farm. The Obama administration advanced its “Smart from the Start” initiative, designating wind energy areas off the coasts of five Atlantic coast states, and it is actively pursuing leases with potential developers. And projects in state waters off New Jersey, Texas, and Ohio took important steps and cleared hurdles in the planning and permitting stages.

Unfortunately, as has been the case throughout the history of offshore wind in this country, it soon became another example of three steps forward, two steps back. Less than a month after Interior gave Cape Wind the green light, the Department of Energy informed the company it would not be eligible for a loan guarantee. Then, in the waning days of the year, another offshore wind pioneer, NRG Bluewater Wind, announced that it would back out of a three-year-old power-purchase agreement with Delmarva Power because it couldn’t generate sufficient investor interest.

Meanwhile, developers in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France, Norway, China, South Korea, and other countries are proving that offshore wind is a viable economic model. They have permitted more than 40,000 MW of offshore wind energy capacity. The United States has only issued permits for 488 MW. (see table)

Not only does this delay reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and our transition to renewable energy sources, but it also prevents American innovators from taking advantage of the design, manufacturing, and construction jobs that go along with it. In Europe, where more than 4,000 MW of offshore wind capacity is already installed, developers expect to create 169,000 jobs by 2020 and 300,000 by 2030.

Public support isn’t the problem

According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Civil Society Institute, about 7 in 10 Americans (71 percent) support “a shift of federal support for energy away from nuclear and towards clean renewable energy such as wind and solar.” In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, undeveloped land is difficult to find. That means renewable energy developers have to look further afield—in this case, to sea.

In the early days of offshore wind, the obstacles to development in the United States were largely borne of ignorance—concerns that offshore turbines visible on the horizon would destroy property values; that noise, or safety, or storage of lubricating fluid for the turbines would pose unacceptable risks. As other countries around the world have moved ahead with offshore wind development and seen no ill effects from those factors, however, such concerns have dramatically abated.

Support from coastal residents is fundamental to the potential success of offshore wind projects. After all, these wind farms will effectively be built in their backyards. And recently, poll after poll has shown that coastal residents are highly supportive of offshore wind energy. According to a poll of New Jersey residents, offshore wind production is extremely popular among voters and its support cuts across party and geographic lines. The analysis demonstrates that 78 percent of all New Jersey voters and 77 percent of the state’s shore residents surveyed support the development of wind power 12 to 15 miles off their coast.

Public support is strong in Delaware as well. According to a University of Delaware poll, general statewide support for offshore wind in Delaware is 77.8 percent, compared with an opposition of only 4.2 percent.

In Maryland The Baltimore Sun reported in October 2011 that 62 percent of Marylanders favor wind turbine construction off the coast of Ocean City and would be willing to pay up to $2 more per month on electricity bills. Mike Tidwell, head of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said, “Marylanders understand that the benefits of offshore wind are more than worth a modest initial investment.”

This view is backed by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, but as The Washington Postreported earlier this week, his efforts to make his state a leader in offshore wind appear to be in jeopardy. Monday’s article quoted Democratic Del. Dereck E. Davis saying, “The situation has gotten worse — not better — for offshore wind since the last time it was up for debate.”

So what has changed?

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