No competitors for company behind Atlantic offshore wind power ‘superhighway’

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A proposal for an underwater “electric transmission superhighway” took a step forward yesterday as the Department of Interior announced that only one company, Atlantic Grid Holdings LLC, had expressed interest in undertaking the $1.7 billion project.

The Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC) would connect offshore wind farms up and down the Atlantic coast, consolidating up to 7,000 megawatts of power along a single, 300-mile high-voltage transmission line.

The Interior’s issuance of a “determination of no competitive interest” means that both that the AWC and its federal regulators can skip a lengthy bidding and auction process. However, the absence of other interested parties also underscored the ambitious nature of the venture, which comes at a time when the cost of offshore wind power is estimated at nearly two and a half times that of its onshore counterpart.

To proceed, the project will need a commitment from its prospective clients, said AWC CEO Bob Mitchell. Going forward, it will be up to states along the Atlantic coast. States such as New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, where potential wind farm sites have already been cleared by environmental review, will have to make their interest in offshore wind power clear to the regional grid operator, PJM Interconnection, he said.

“The biggest issue we have in front of us is that we need to get PJM to factor the AWC into their [plans for future transmissions],” he said. “If you don’t do that, you don’t build your line.”

Once states have affirmed their commitment, “then I’ll start promoting the project to our investors,” Mitchell added.

A low-wire act

Many state officials have already indicated an interest in offshore wind, Tommy Beaudreau, the chief of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a conference call with reporters.

“The governors up and down the East Coast are extraordinarily interested in broadening out their energy portfolio with offshore wind,” he said. “We have seen a level of engagement and interest by the governors … in getting steel in the water.”

Although the American Atlantic coastline harbors potential for as much as 1,000 gigawatts of offshore wind power, the United States has yet to embrace the technology to the same extent as European countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark. Were the AWC to move forward, said Mitchell, America could effectively leapfrog the competition to become a global leader in the technology.

There are advantages to running wind power through an offshore backbone transmission system on the scale of the AWC, he said. Having multiple power generating stations running their currents through a single avenue alleviates the problem of wind power’s inconstancy, because even if the wind isn’t turning turbines at one station, it’s likely to be blowing elsewhere along the coast.

“There’s also a major congestion problem, particularly in the transmission lines between New York and Washington, D.C.,” he said. Routing some of that power through the AWC would help alleviate costly delays, he added.

Atlantic Grid Holdings projects that the first operational segments of the AWC could come online by 2016 or 2017; the project is expected to take around a decade to complete.