‘Backbone’ designed to carry offshore wind power gets rebranded for N.J.

Source: Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 18, 2014

Times have changed for the Atlantic Wind Connection.When it was announced in October 2010, the project was billed as an undersea transmission line that would help capture “the enormous potential of offshore wind energy off the Mid-Atlantic coast.”And in January 2013, AWC announced it had selected New Jersey as its starting point, “based on New Jersey’s commitment to developing an offshore wind industry and the large potential for clean renewable power that exists off its shoreline.”

But yesterday, Bob Mitchell, CEO of AWC and independent transmission company Trans-Elect, said that the New Jersey Energy Link has distanced itself from offshore wind, a strategic move to gain backing from the Christie administration that many offshore wind insiders are already aware of.

“Right now, we’re essentially divorced from offshore wind,” Mitchell said at a forum hosted by the U.S. Energy Association in Washington, D.C. “We and regulators and others have to look at this line … as an important link within the existing grid.”

New Jersey’s political support for offshore wind has waned since 2010, when Gov. Chris Christie (R) approved a law providing a substantial subsidy for the technology. As a result, Google-backed AWC is now selling itself to state policymakers as a transmission line that will cut electricity costs and increase grid resilience should another storm like Superstorm Sandy arrive on the New Jersey coast.

Mitchell stressed that if offshore wind were to be developed in New Jersey, AWC would be happy to accommodate it. But, he added, “we will be agnostic as to what power comes on that line; it’s just a line like a highway, whatever car, truck, whatever wants to come on the road can go on the road.”

A ‘backbone’ for whatever

If all goes as planned, the AWC project will still result in a cable stretching about 350 miles from northern New Jersey to southern Virginia, 12 to 15 miles off the East Coast’s heavily developed shores.

This “backbone” is designed to handle up to 7,000 megawatts of energy produced by offshore wind turbines, delivering renewable power to one of the most congested grids in the United States. Additionally, AWC has claimed that the project will save offshore wind developers the trouble of developing their own transmission lines.

New Jersey was selected as AWC’s first stage last January partially due to the state Legislature’s passage of the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act in 2010, which provided significant tax credits and other incentives designed to jump-start the offshore wind industry in the state.

Additionally, New Jersey ratepayers face some of the highest electricity costs in the nation due to a generation shortage, particularly in the state’s densely populated northern portion, where it is also nearly impossible to build new transmission on land.

But offshore wind’s day in the New Jersey sun seems to have passed. Regulations supporting the technology that were to be developed under the 2010 law have yet to be implemented. Also, a pilot offshore wind project near Atlantic City led by Fishermen’s Energy LLC was rejected last month by the state’s Board of Public Utilities, which disputed the developer’s proposed electricity price (ClimateWire, March 21).

New Jersey environmental advocates and some offshore wind insiders see Christie’s presidential ambitions as the possible motivation behind these actions, speculating that the leader feels he must distance himself from renewable energy in order to gain broad GOP support.

Whatever the reason, Mitchell decided in late 2013 that if he was going to get bipartisan support for the $1.3 billion New Jersey portion of his transmission line, he needed to convince the state that it was a boon to energy consumers if it was built “divorced of offshore wind,” simply providing a free-flowing transmission from southern to northern New Jersey.

A study by the Boston-based consulting firm Levitan & Associates provided exactly the argument Mitchell needed, finding that ratepayers within the state’s PJM Interconnection zone would save as much as $475 million a year if AWC was installed.

Additionally, Mitchell argues, “the line will provide reliability and resilience and will be far more secure than on-land, overhead lines.”

A ‘staging’ while the industry awaits a new governor

So far, the pitch has worked — last year, the New Jersey Legislature approved a joint resolution in support of the project with strong support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. And Mitchell believes he has Christie’s support as well.

“He’s heard the message, and I think it’s resonated,” Mitchell said. “I think he probably doesn’t have any problem with our line, as long as it’s separate from offshore wind.”

But how do offshore wind advocates feel about AWC’s rebranding?

Catherine Bowes, senior manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Climate and Energy Program who is heavily involved with the industry, said in an email that AWC’s shift in language “is a sign of N.J. losing out on near-term investment opportunities because the Christie Administration has not implemented their state policy to advance offshore wind.”

Mitchell insists that should the transmission line become a link for conventional energy sources at first, it wouldn’t affect its ability to connect offshore wind farms to the grid if they are finally built.

“There will be come competition, and it will mean not that the wind is more expensive, but that probably the power coming from the west will have a little bit of a bump because of this competition to sell power,” Mitchell said. “The worst case, which could be a best case, is that you have so much offshore wind that you build another cable.”

When asked whether Google — which supports the project because it is designed to aid renewable energy — has weighed in on AWC’s shift in message, Mitchell responded that “they see it as we do — as a staging,” meaning that it is a step toward the line supporting offshore wind.

“If and when New Jersey does move forward — maybe it won’t be until there’s a new governor, I don’t know — but when they do, if that line is in place, then developing offshore wind is going to become an enormously easier process,” Mitchell said.