OFFSHORE WIND: Federal tailwind now pushing sea-based projects

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OFFSHORE WIND: Federal tailwind now pushing sea-based projects (Monday, January 19, 2009)
Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter

The federal government sent a strong signal of support Friday for the construction of large sea-based wind farms when it endorsed Cape Wind, the embattled proposal in Massachusetts with 130 turbines, according to experts.
The move could encourage new plans for hundreds of turbines along U.S. coastlines, accelerate a handful of projects already under way and provide the foundation for faster government decisions in the future, offshore observers and participants say.
"This is a big day, and I'm sure a lot of people never thought it was going to come," said Jeremy Firestone, associate professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware, who called the decision a "historical marker."
The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service released a final environmental impact statement Friday finding that Cape Wind presents no major hazards to the shallow shoal on which the towers would be built, about five miles from Cape Cod. It looked at nine other sites along the New England coast and found that the 24-square-mile area chosen for Cape Wind is the best in terms of environmental impact, waves, depth and economics.
The project, the report finds, would make "a substantial contribution to enhancing the region's electrical reliability and achieving the renewable energy requirements under the Massachusetts and regional renewable portfolio standards."

High stakes for the winner
The findings offered no surprises. Yet the government's process of successfully analyzing details related to fish, birds, bats and a host of other potential impacts could lay the groundwork for faster approvals in the future.
\I sincerely hope that it makes it easier for those coming down the pike,\ Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, said in an interview, referring to other offshore projects.
The decision comes as various states and developers are racing to seize the benefits of building the nation's first offshore wind farm. Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Texas are all trying to establish themselves as the leader. That could create new jobs and buttress state budgets as businesses related to turbine manufacturing and services settle near an operating farm.
"This could really catalyze a renaissance along the deepwater ports of this country," said Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind Associates.
"I think that if we get Cape Wind moving, and other offshore wind farms moving, I think you're going to see just an amazing collection of industries -- to shipbuilding, to blade manufacturing, to wind turbine nacelle manufacturing -- located along the East Coast," he said.

Domino effect: first one, then others
There's widespread agreement among experts and developers that Cape Wind has pushed the entire industry forward by forcing the federal government to analyze its project and develop regulations.
"We really need that first project to be done," said Laurie Jodziewicz, an offshore expert with the American Wind Energy Association. "That's not to say Cape Wind will be the first. They certainly are in the running."
The government's learning process includes the development of mitigation methods, or requirements placed on developers meant to prevent them from harming wildlife and natural habitat. Techniques being developed for Cape Wind could be considered for other projects.
That marks one of a few changes between Friday's report and a draft environmental impact statement on Cape Wind released a year ago by the Minerals Management Service.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service indicated in the final report that the project doesn't jeopardize animal species. But they did recommend mitigation measures to protect wildlife.
The developers, for example, will have to fund a study on the migration of roseate terns and piping plovers. The government requires that 50 birds be captured and tagged with radio transmitters to determine whether their flying habits are altered by the project.

Evading Oberstar
The final report hit a snag in December when Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar (D), chairman of the transportation committee, urged the Coast Guard to delay its recommendations regarding navigation safety to the Minerals Management Service. He sent several letters warning that he might hold hearings on safety concerns related to turbines interfering with radar.
"Anybody in the federal government is going to pay attention when a member of Congress writes letters," Luthi said, when asked if Oberstar had delayed the report.
But it appears that officials with the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service worked around the congressional warnings. The agency received an "advanced copy" of the Coast Guard report, which it included in the final environmental statement. The Coast Guard, which indicated last month that Cape Wind is "doable," then complied with Oberstar's request for a delay by forwarding its final report to MMS on Tuesday.
Gordon acknowledged Friday that he will have to reapply to the Federal Aviation Administration for a "no harm" determination before being able to begin construction. The FAA has already granted Gordon two, but they expired as the process dragged on. The FAA, meanwhile, has launched another study on the effects of turbines on airplane radar.
Cape Wind can't be built until the federal government makes a final decision on the project, a process that is heavily influenced by the environmental impact statement, which Luthi called "favorable." The Massachusetts Energy Facility Siting Board also has to approve several permits, including one that allows an underwater cable to connect the wind farm with the mainland.
Gordon expects to clear those hurdles by spring. He said construction could begin later this year, with power being produced at the wind farm by 2011 or 2012.
But there's still active opposition. The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound has pledged to sue Gordon to stop construction. Audra Parker, the group's executive director, says the Minerals Management Service "rushed to issue the Cape Wind report at the eleventh hour of the Bush administration."
"We'll take whatever action is necessary to make sure Nantucket Sound is protected from an inappropriate development," she said.
Firestone, the professor, said the government has spent years analyzing the project's impacts and crafting detailed environmental reports. That could prompt the courts to rely on agency expertise, he said.