States, feds ink deal to streamline Great Lakes wind projects

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, April 2, 2012

The Obama administration and several states are easing the offshore wind permitting process for Great Lakes wind developments, officials said today.

The Department of Energy and Council on Environmental Quality spearheaded the effort to coordinate siting and permitting requirements — a mix of state and federal regulations — for offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes. Five of the eight Great Lakes states entered into a memorandum of understanding with DOE, CEQ and other federal agencies, in which they agreed to produce a permitting blueprint for wind development in the lakes to smooth the process without sacrificing environmental protection.

“The goal of this MOU is to cut through red tape so we can efficiently and responsibly evaluate projects that have the potential to create American jobs and reduce pollution in our community,” CEQ Chairwoman Nancy Sutley said during a conference call today

No developers have formally applied for permits to develop wind projects in the Great Lakes, although a nonprofit organization centered in Cleveland is expected to apply for permits soon.

Participating in the MOU are the states of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as 10 federal agencies, including CEQ, DOE, the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. EPA, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin did not sign the MOU.

Participants agreed to produce a “regulatory road map” within 15 months to coordinate data collection, expected permit processing times and decisionmaking authorities, according to the MOU. They also agreed to participate in pre-application consultations with developers and joint reviews of project proposals.

CEQ will serve as a “single federal point of contact” for communications needed to complete reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act, which is triggered for the Great Lakes projects primarily because they need Clean Water Act dredge-and-fill permits and Rivers and Harbors Act authorization from the Army Corps of Engineers. Projects also could be eligible for grants or other support from DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The MOU is the latest of the Obama administration’s many efforts to promote offshore wind development, such as the Interior Department’s “smart from the start” initiative to streamline development in federal waters that has primarily focused on identifying potential areas for development off the coasts of several mid-Atlantic states.

DOE also plans to dole out $180 million in grants over the next six years to get offshore wind projects in the water. Today is the deadline for applications for a first round of funding, a $20 million pot of money DOE plans to distribute later this year for up to four projects (Greenwire, March 2).

The Great Lakes have a massive potential for offshore wind, with potentially more than 700 gigawatts of energy available, according to DOE. That’s more than a sixth of the total 4,000 GW of potential that DOE estimates could be generated from offshore wind farms along every coastline in the United States.

But the Great Lakes present their own potential challenges to wind development. Unlike ocean waters, for example, the lakes sometimes freeze over, which could damage turbine foundations sited there.

Although all the Great Lakes states didn’t sign onto the agreement, efforts to streamline the federal permitting requirements are expected to aid developers throughout the region. One of the first projects that could be constructed is being spearheaded by the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., or LEEDCo, a Cleveland nonprofit planning a 20- to 30-megawatt project that could eventually be scaled up.

Although Ohio did not sign onto the MOU, its offshore wind requirements already are centralized within the state’s Power Siting Board, but the broad swath of federal agencies involved in the NEPA process can be more cumbersome, said LEEDCo President Lorry Wagner.

“I think it changes the landscape in that when we continue talking to the federal agencies, they’re aware that the Department of Energy and CEQ are trying to develop a plan,” he said in an interview today. “So certainly, that should benefit us in that sense going forward.”

Wagner said LEEDCo is still gathering data to support its permit applications, which have not yet been filed. The nonprofit aims to begin port work by 2014 and to have turbines in the water by 2015, he said.

While the steadier winds offshore provide an attractive target for development, critics contend turbines can ruin views from the shoreline or interfere with wildlife habitats. Around the world, more than 3,800 MW of capacity has been installed, mostly in Europe, but no offshore projects are operating in the United States.

The Cape Wind project in federal waters off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., which was approved last year, is the only project so far to receive all its necessary permits — a decade after filing its first application. But the project has struggled to secure financing and is still searching for a buyer for about a quarter of the electricity it would produce, delaying construction. Local activists also are challenging approval of the project in federal court.