Eastern states advanced their commitment this week to quell the fierce competition around building the nation's first offshore wind farm and cooperate toward creating and pushing a web of ocean-based turbine facilities.
States from Maine to Maryland are exploring ways to share potential infrastructure, like strings of underwater transmission lines, and know-how about siting, permitting and building fields of turbines off their coastlines.
The states met in New Jersey early this week for a clean energy summit, and participants said a main theme emerged: An offshore industry will be created more quickly if they act as a team. That could mean more jobs, local energy in a region that is reliant on borrowed power, and cost savings for a fleet of facilities on the outer continental shelf.
"The states in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions want to be the captains of their own clean energy future," said Mark Sinclair, executive director of the Clean Energy Group, a nonprofit that promotes state renewable power initiatives.
"They don't want transmission to be built from the Great Plains that then dictate that they have to purchase wind and coal from the Midwest," he added. "They realize if they are going to avoid that kind of national transmission approach they need to tap resources in this region, and do it soon."
Discussions ventured into rarely visited territory, including the idea that several states could act together to require utilities to buy offshore wind electricity, Sinclair said. That could raise demand for wind power. States might also coordinate public financing efforts, such as feed-in tariffs and production tax credits, that could spark economic interest in offshore wind, he added.
States seek simplicity to soothe industry nerves
The team effort is meant in part to convince Washington that the states can be a big player in offshore wind, even as the federal government continues to plod through its effort to permit the first such project: Cape Wind, the proposed 130-turbine wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts.
The states have plunged forward on several projects, and they don't want the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service and other agencies to slow down their progress with duplicative requirements, or by opening up sections of the seafloor that states have identified for turbine projects to new competitive bidding.
Developers of offshore wind farms are also "very concerned" that federal bidding -- after state acceptance -- could undercut a lot of expensive work that companies have done to identify sites and comply with state rules, said Laurie Jodziewicz, an offshore wind expert with the American Wind Energy Association.
"It's a difficult process already," she added. "It's very complex to get an offshore wind project [approved], and we don't have any here in the United States yet. So people are very nervous about making something that is that complex even more complex."
MMS established rules on offshore wind earlier this year. It's unclear how the agency will proceed with federal bidding, so some states and industry participants want MMS to formally acknowledge the standings of existing state decisions. New Jersey, Delaware and other states, all of which preside over the seafloor up to 3 miles from their shores, are moving forward with offshore proposals. But they need MMS to issue ocean leases, which give developers the right to build facilities between 3 miles and 200 miles from shore.
Wind is the 'secret' to East Coast power
The states want to shave off the time it takes to build the projects, so they can meet renewable power standards, build manufacturing plants and beat other nations to the punch on offshore wind. They think that can happen if states join forces to do the legwork around the impacts on birds, bats, marine life, boaters, planes and other issues.
"If there's any way -- and I'm not suggesting that there may be -- if there's any way by collaborating and by coming into certain areas with a clear and consistent voice so that perhaps MMS wouldn't have to, on certain issues, consult with every state individually ... if we could help them up front by doing that, by coming to some agreement, then maybe that could make that time period a little bit shorter," said Greg Watson, the top clean energy consultant for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D).
Several states are moving forward with projects. Massachusetts recently gave final approval to Cape Wind. Delaware chose Bluewater Wind for a proposed 450-megawatt facility. New Jersey is working with several developers on a 350-megawatt plan. And Rhode Island, Maryland, New York and other states are pushing ahead, too.
Maine, meanwhile, is choosing five sites to test deepwater technologies, like various types of floating turbines. One version would bob in the water like a buoy, fastened to the seafloor with guy lines.
All of the plans are meant to make the East, which currently imports much of its power, more able to generate its own electricity. Unlike the West, the densely populated strip along the East Coast has relatively little vacant land upon which to site wind farms. Plus, the region's strongest and most reliable winds blow offshore, putting this energy source relatively close to major cities.
"Offshore wind in some ways is the secret to energy independence in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states," said Sinclair of the Clean Energy Group.