With turbines on the watery horizon, hopes for a more streamlined permitting process

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Boat and turbines

Catching the wind off Copenhagen, Denmark. Europe is ahead of the United States in harnessing offshore wind. Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

It took more than a decade for Cape Wind, a 468-megawatt offshore wind project destined for the Nantucket Sound, to find its way through an unfinished regulatory labyrinth of government permits and sign-offs.

Now, with developments up and down the Eastern Seaboard paving the way for a raft of new offshore wind projects, regulators, analysts and a nascent industry are looking for ways to expedite the process.

In part, the length of the regulatory procedure stems from the plurality of agencies involved, said Alison Bates, a graduate student at the University of Delaware who has studied Cape Wind’s journey. “This is a complicated problem,” she said. “There are lots of interagency relationships that need to happen. They’re relying on getting things on other people’s desks

Proponents of the project have pointed to regulatory procedures in other countries, primarily in Western Europe, where a single government agency is designated to oversee the leasing, permitting and regulation of offshore wind projects. Unlike the United States, which has yet to set foundations for an initial installation, the European Union already boasts 5 gigawatts of installed capacity — equivalent to five large nuclear power plants.

The U.S. government’s approach, particularly in terms of leasing prospective offshore wind sites, is more closely related to its experience with offshore oil and gas, said Jeremy Firestone, a professor of marine studies working with Bates at the University of Delaware.

Of course, the United States must take into account unique considerations based on its own geography and marine environments, he cautioned. “The E.U. has less of a marine mammal issue — you don’t have migrations of great whales in the North Sea,” he said. “Scenic vistas tend to be a larger issue for the U.S. We have the potential that installations could affect submerged [indigenous] settlements. These are the kinds of issues we have to consider.”

A custody battle between 2 agencies

A major factor in Cape Wind’s delay dates back to 2005, when jurisdiction for permitting the project shifted from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Department of the Interior.

Already several years into the process, the Army Corps had completed a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) and opened it to public comment. However, a provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 “retained a role for the Army Corps of Engineers … but grants ultimate authority over offshore wind energy development to the Secretary of Interior,” according to a 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Ironically, the amendment in question was intended to clear up ambiguities in the regulatory process, thus streamlining future regulations, according to the CRS report.

Rather than accept the Army Corps review, Interior opted to conduct its own environmental impact statement — a process that would not be complete until 2009.

Even with its permits in hand, Cape Wind’s future is not assured. It still faces legal action from citizens groups on the Nantucket Sound, and more importantly, needs to secure financing. It has successfully secured buyers for 75 percent of its power from two transmission operators, NSTAR and National Grid.

‘Backbone’ gets future appendages

And suddenly, it has competition for designation as first out of the gate. Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) took steps this month to speed leasing off the coast of Virginia. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) successfully pushed a measure through the state Senate mandating that the state purchase a portion of its power from offshore turbines.

An ambitious project to connect many of these proposed projects via a submerged transmission “backbone” took an important step forward earlier this year when it selected New Jersey for the first leg of its journey.

Regulators at Interior, including former Secretary Ken Salazar, have said on multiple occasions that a more streamlined regulatory process will be needed to accelerate the development of offshore wind, which officials say fits into President Obama’s “all of the above” approach to energy development.

In an effort to facilitate future projects, Interior has identified several thousand square miles of seabed it considers prime territory for new projects, including the region proposed for Cape Wind.

“Cape Wind was the first project of its kind in the U.S.,” said BOEM spokeswoman Tracey Moriarty. “Anytime you have something that’s a first, its going to take more time.” Having been through the regulatory experience of Cape Wind, government agencies are better able to address new projects as they come to the table, she added.