Obama admin advances largest U.S. wind farm, Atlantic offshore plans

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Obama administration today announced a major advancement of its efforts to expand wind-generated electricity with the completion of environmental reviews of the largest proposed wind farm in North America and of a plan to begin tapping into the vast wind resources off the Atlantic Coast.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today announced that the Bureau of Land Management has completed a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project, proposed by Power Company of Wyoming LLC, which would string together as many as 1,000 wind turbines across more than 220,000 acres of BLM and ranch lands in southeast Wyoming. The wind farm would have the capacity to produce up to 3,000 megawatts of electricity.

Salazar also announced the completion of an environmental assessment for a 165,000-acre Rhode Island/Massachusetts Wind Energy Area that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will use to begin issuing commercial leases for offshore wind development along the Atlantic Coast. It follows the finalization of leasing plans off the coasts of Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland.

“Today is a very important call for us because we are punctuating two very significant projects that we are working on in the area of wind energy. These two areas in Wyoming and off the coast of the Atlantic are areas where we believe we’re going to see major wind energy projects in the future,” Salazar said today during a conference calls with reporters. “For the past three years, our nation’s wind energy industry has expanded significantly in the United States. There is no exaggeration when we say that historic landmarks, historic progress has been made with wind energy in the United States. The United States is now one of the world’s leaders in installed land-based wind-power capacity. We’re very proud of what has been accomplished.”

The final EIS for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project marks a milestone for the Obama administration, which has made expanding renewables development on public land a high priority. Salazar noted it would have the capacity to power roughly 1 million homes.

“When you think about the state of Wyoming, with a population of about 600,000, this is enough power for all the homes in Wyoming, plus a lot more,” he said. “Wyoming, we know, has some of the best wind energy resources in the entire world, and there’s no doubt that this project has the potential to be a landmark project for the U.S. and the entire world.”

Since 2009, Interior has approved 31 commercial-scale solar, wind and geothermal power plants on federal land, which would have the capacity to produce up to 7,200 MW of electricity.

BLM plans to issue a record of decision approving the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project by this fall, making it the seventh large-scale wind farm approved by the Obama administration since 2009, said Mike Pool, BLM’s acting director.

Pool said the final EIS for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm is the culmination of three years of work, which was necessary “because of the sage grouse populations that exist in Wyoming. We also have a very robust eagle population.”

The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project’s mitigation includes a sage grouse monitoring program using GPS technology to understand the birds’ activities and habitat use, as well as an avian monitoring program using advanced radar tracking technology to collect insights into where raptors may fly in relation to the project site. PCW is also using the data to develop its science-based Eagle Conservation Strategy, according to the company.

“When you think about 1,000 wind turbines, which is essentially what this project contemplates, this wind proposal has required careful review and making sure that we have thoughtful mitigation measures in place,” Salazar said. “And I’m confident that with this proactive approach at the front end, we can get this significant project off the ground and start creating jobs there for Wyoming from green energy, and delivering wind energy to the grid.”

Bill Miller, the president and CEO of Power Company of Wyoming, said today in a statement that the project proposal represents “a balanced approach that will provide the best opportunity to develop an environmentally responsible, economically viable wind project and to provide the country with millions of megawatt-hours of cost-effective clean energy.”

Salazar also used the announcement to push for Congress to extend a lucrative federal production tax credit that’s set to expire by year’s end. Without it, the wind power industry and the Obama administration have argued, it will be difficult to maintain the current pace of both investment and development in renewable energy plants.

“The Obama administration, at the president’s explicit direction, has been working hard to help move the wind energy program forward, and the president has been very clear about the importance of the United States’ Congress standing up to its responsibility and supporting the tax credits for this industry because it’s so important for the future of a sound renewable energy program that is part of our all-of-the-above energy strategy for the United States,” he said. “The production tax credit is one key to the continued success of private investment in our clean energy economy.”

Offshore wind

Salazar’s announcement was also a major advancement toward development of offshore wind energy.

The boundaries of the Rhode Island/Massachusetts energy zone were identified by BOEM and the governors of the two states in February.

BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau said the agency hopes to be able to hold a competitive lease sale in the new energy zone by year’s end.

“We know that there is significant interest from industry to develop in this area, and we’re working hard so that we can offer leases for sale in this area by the end of this year,” Salazar said.

The environmental assessment finalized today considered, among other things, potential impacts to endangered North Atlantic right whales and coastal scenery, in addition to potential mitigation options such as seasonal vessel restrictions, speed limits and enhanced monitoring. The assessment also considered the impacts of issuing wind development rights and the installation of testing equipment such as buoys and meteorological towers. Commercial projects, which are likely at least a few years away, would require a separate analysis (E&ENews PM, May 30).

“This environmental assessment is the first of its kind in the Northeast and is based on thorough scientific and technical analysis and substantial stakeholder input to identify the most suitable location for commercial wind energy activities in this area offshore Rhode Island and Massachusetts,” Beaudreau said during the conference call. “We will continue to seek public participation in our process, including comments on this environmental assessment, as we move forward with an innovative, targeted leasing approach to offshore wind.”

Salazar said the environmental reviews of the offshore zone and the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project were conducted over the course of years, and are central to ensuring “these renewable energy projects are being split up in the right way and the right places.”

He added that he is confident the projects, particularly the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm, have been adequately reviewed and will withstand scrutiny.

The offshore assessment and the final EIS for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project are expected to be published tomorrow in the Federal Register.