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Clean and renewable, but untested  

REHOBOTH BEACH – With the frigid late-January wind whipping off the ocean, it wasn’t much of a day to stroll the boardwalk or sit on the beach. But it would have been a great day to generate electricity from the first offshore wind farm in the country.

If 200 wind turbines had been sitting offshore, the wind would have spun them at maximum speed, generating in 24 hours about 500 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 500,000 homes for one day.

Bluewater Wind, a New Jersey company, wants to build such a wind park 10.5 miles off the coast of this seaside city or seven miles off Bethany Beach to provide Delaware residents a new source of electricity. Supporters point out that production would be free of the pollutants or heat-trapping “greenhouse gas” emissions associated with conventional power plants, and fueled by abundant, and free, Atlantic Ocean winds.

“You have the Saudi Arabia of wind off your shores,” said Peter Mandelstam, the company’s president. “It’s very windy and the waters are shallow.”

The project, now competing with two other power plant ventures, has developed a following across Delaware and would be one of the largest in the world, if approved. Supporters include some of the top politicians and many environmental groups, backed by a University of Delaware-sponsored survey that found broad support for wind energy.

But others warn that offshore wind ventures, generally, and Bluewater in particular are sailing into uncharted regions. Bluewater has drawn criticism for submitting a bid based on undisclosed or unproven answers to questions about costs, reliability and effect on birds, fish and other aquatic life and environments.

“It’s not so much the prediction that something drastic is going to happen, but not enough information has been gathered to even do a logical risk assessment,” for offshore wind farms, said Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Massachusetts-based environmental group Nantucket Soundkeeper.

Offshore wind power involves “a range of issues – fishing, tourism, economics, visibility, environmental impacts on bird life, fish, marine mammals,” Nickerson said.

Bluewater and wind power advocates generally say wind power already has proven itself a good neighbor.

American wind power production ranks third globally, trailing only Germany and Spain, and accounts for about 20 percent of the world total, according to the Global Wind Energy Council, based in Belgium.

Denmark, the world’s fifth-largest wind energy producer, has meanwhile sunk billions of dollars into offshore wind and late last year published a study that found wind farms can be developed without significant harm or risk to birds or aquatic life, provided sites are chosen carefully and with adequate precautions.

Wind advocates say the findings add to wind power’s allure as a way to make energy without the pollutants and carbon-dioxide emissions of conventional power plants. Those features have gained increased attention as world governments wrestle with calls for cuts in heat-trapping carbon-dioxide emissions linked to global warming and climate shifts.

“It’s made people sit up and put wind into a whole, fresh, new point of view,” said Guy Dauncey of British Columbia, president of the Sustainable Energy Association and author of the book “Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Climate Change.”

Delaware found itself looking for a new approach last year after alarming increases in costs following deregulation of the wholesale electricity market in 1999. The deregulation lifted price caps in May, leading to a 59 percent increase in the cost of residential electricity.

The bid is one of three for the Delmarva project. The others are a coal gasification plant proposed by NRG Energy, and a natural gas plant proposed by Conectiv. Four state agencies, advised by Delmarva, are expected to make their final decision by late spring or early summer.

“We have a huge stake in this decision. We can set an example for the rest of the country by selecting the one energy option that provides the greatest long-term financial and environmental benefits,” Delaware Audubon Society, one of the state’s oldest environmental groups, said in a position paper supporting Bluewater Wind, released last month.

“Wind energy is not a futuristic, niche technology,” Audubon leaders wrote.

Details of plans not made public

If it opened today, Bluewater Wind’s project off Delaware would rank as the largest offshore wind farm in the world. If completed as company officials hope in 2012, it would likely be the second largest, behind a planned project off the coast of the United Kingdom. There are 17 offshore wind farms worldwide, all off the coasts of Europe.

Bluewater Wind made the bid in response to a request for proposals to provide 400 megawatts of electricity to Delmarva Power. The state required Delmarva to seek the bids as part of an effort to provide a long-term, Delaware-produced source of energy.

“We’ve looked carefully at it,” said Tim Brown, spokesman for Delmarva Power.

One concern: Wind turbines rely on weather, operating at full capacity only part of the time. Company officials say the average electricity output throughout the year, including the less windy summer months, would be less than half of what it was on that day last month.

Critics say the link to weather forces overinvestment. Wind farms have to be large enough to collect sufficient electricity even when winds are light, pushing developers to plant hundreds of turbines to assure minimum output.

“What’s happening is people don’t understand how you can ‘firm up’ wind energy,” Dauncey said. “If you have hydropower, you can store water behind a dam.”

Yet details about Bluewater’s capacity plans remain out of reach to the public, as do the details of the two power plants competing for the lucrative deal. Although confidentiality claims are now under review by all three bidders, Bluewater excluded information about the generating capacity and costs of its project from public versions of its application.

Other storms lie ahead. Around Nantucket Sound, some opponents say a project to put 130 turbines in federal waters would mar the offshore horizon and disrupt fishing, ferry traffic and navigation.

Similar complaints have come ashore in Delaware.

“A lot of people are against it because it will ruin the view of the horizon,” said Robert Littleton, co-owner of Clarksville-based Bobs Marine Service Inc. “Myself, I would think the wind mills would be a better way to go because you get rid of all the coal ash. I suspect that a lot of people who are opposed have houses on the beach.”

Littleton referred to huge old and new stockpiles of ash at NRG’s Indian River power plant near Millsboro, where DNREC recently announced plans for a major, utility-financed cleanup to stop pollution from trickling into the river.

When the wind isn’t blowing

Over lunch at Arena’s Deli last month, some Rehoboth Beach residents said they’re not bothered by the possibility of having 200 wind turbines 11 miles offshore. Renderings, created by RPS of England and supplied by the company, showed the turbines barely visible in the distance.

“It goes so far out, I don’t think it’s going to make a difference,” said Emily Gilmore, a server at the restaurant, examining a rendering brought into the restaurant by a News Journal reporter. “People like seeing things out there. ‘Ooh, I see a ship.’ Now they’ll say, ‘Ooh, I see a windmill.’ ”

Another server there, Dawn Kasow, said: “I couldn’t see it without my glasses.”

But the renderings released to the public were produced by Bluewater Wind and based on a consultant’s “visualization.”

NRG, another company competing for the contract to provide power to Delmarva, said in its filing with the Public Service Commission, and in a full-page ad in The News Journal, that the turbines wouldn’t produce enough power on hot, high-demand days. The company also argued that in this age of more hurricanes, a wind farm isn’t a good idea.

“There are several ironies when NRG raises the question of the ability of wind parks to withstand hurricane-force winds,” said Jim Lenard, spokesman for Bluewater Wind. He said hurricanes are great for harnessing the wind; when they get too intense, the company turns the turbines off and angles them so the wind slides right by.

“Hurricane-force winds that NRG is talking hypothetically about in the North Atlantic would almost only occur with global warming precursor events, to which NRG is a contributor with its many fossil fuel plants throughout the United States,” Lenard said.

Lenard said his company’s turbines would operate 85 percent of the time, and that there would be plenty of other sources of electricity to make up for the time that the wind isn’t blowing.

Dave Bayless, a professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio University, said wind power is inexpensive, but fossil fuel electricity is easier to control. When there’s a need for more electricity, companies simply burn more coal or natural gas, he said. Wind turbines, on the other hand, generate electricity only when the wind is blowing, he said.

Wind power, he said, can be part of the solution, as long as utilities plan ahead to have fossil fuels available when the wind isn’t blowing very hard.

“There’s plenty of room for wind right now. You do have to be careful with managing your loads, and have something as a backup when you need it,” Bayless said. “Utilities do that really well.”

To save birds, ‘Keep your cats inside’

The Bluewater Wind project is one of just a few planned offshore wind projects in this country. Besides the Massachusetts project, there’s a 40-turbine project being considered off of Jones Beach, located on Long Island.

New projects cannot proceed, however, before the U.S. Minerals Management Service issues Environmental Impact Statement requirements for alternative energy projects along the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf.

That document, due as early as next month, will establish the rules for evaluating and approving wind power sites. Final regulations are unlikely to be adopted before September and could face challenges.

“What we’re finding is, we have very little baseline data on Nantucket Sound on which to even base a judgment about the degree of risk,” Nantucket Soundkeeper’s Nickerson said.

Concerns about wind power stretch from the tip of the big turbine blades, some 440 feet above the water, to foundation sediments 60 feet below the surface.

Awareness of the hazards came the hard way. Earlier-generation, faster-spinning wind turbines built in California’s Altamont Pass whack thousands of birds from the sky each year.

But studies in Denmark, based on slower-moving and more-modern turbines, found that “Under the right conditions, even big wind farms pose low risks” to birds, mammals and fish.

“Wind turbines do not kill birds,” Dauncey said. “If you want to stop killing birds, keep your cats inside and turn off some of the lights in the city” on towers and other structures.

Although underwater construction work, such as pile-driving, annoyed or frightened away marine mammals, those populations returned later, the Danes found. Fish populations changed and generally increased, congregating around and exploiting new, hard structures amid the shifting sediments.

“The Danes were very careful to specify that the findings they were reporting were specific to just two wind farms they studied,” Nickerson cautioned. “You have dramatically different conditions in other locations. The dynamics of each site are very unique, and there are significant gaps with regard to what the impacts might be.”

Mark Jacobson, associate professor of environmental engineering at Stanford University, said as many as 40,000 birds are killed each year from wind turbines in the United States, but far more are killed by communications towers, he said.

A renewable source of energy

Bluewater’s Mandelstam formerly worked for the City of New York building affordable housing. But he credits reading in 1989 “The End of Nature,” Bill McKibben’s early book on global warming, with changing his life’s purpose.

Mandelstam opened a solar nonprofit, but realized quickly what a small part solar would play in the solution. He believed wind power could have a more immediate impact.

He started Arcadia Windpower, which built the Judith Gap wind park, a 181-megawatt facility, in Montana.

Bluewater Wind is a subsidiary of Arcadia. The Delaware project would be the company’s first venture into offshore wind farms, but the company is not the first to propose a site off Delaware.

Winergy Power of Hauppauge, N.Y., submitted an application in 2002 to build a 306-turbine, 1,101-megawatt wind farm 3 1/2 miles off the coast of Bethany Beach. The proposal attracted interest from environmentalists, but was criticized by coastal landowners worried the turbines would blot their view.

Winergy officials said their application with the federal government has lapsed. “We’re ready to submit” again when the government says it’s OK, said company spokesman Mark Treiser.

Mandelstam’s project boasts a team of companies experienced in building offshore wind farms abroad, including Fluor, the world’s second-largest engineering company, and Ramboll, a large European engineering firm.

One fan of offshore wind power is Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. He said he’d like to see both a wind farm and a coal gasification facility, although he added, “I don’t know if that’s achievable.”

“If wind power off Delmarva (Peninsula) is an economically viable project, when the wind blows, how hard the wind blows, how often throughout the year the wind blows, my hope is wind power will be part of the mix of electricity generation for Delmarva in the early part of this century,” Carper said.

The state will require utilities to get 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2019. That would work in Bluewater Wind’s favor, being potentially the only major source of clean energy in the state. Company executives say opening the proposed wind farm would provide the utilities with all of the renewable power they need to comply with the law.

Utilities, however, also have the option of buying renewable power from out of state.

Bluewater Wind faces a potential hurdle in the form of a point system set out by the Public Service Commission as a way of evaluating the bids.

Critics, like Treasurer Jack Markell, say the point system puts too much emphasis on price and not enough on price stability and environmental concerns. Wind farms have high startup costs, but advocates say they pay for themselves in the long run.

As for the point system, “I go where opportunities are good, and I live with the situation,” Mandelstam said.

Company officials aren’t afraid to talk up the dire consequences of global warming to help make their case. If the current projections are right, one-third of Delaware could someday be under water.

Mike McCabe, a former deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a consultant to Delmarva Power, said if Delawareans want to stop global warming, they have to start making changes.

“Delaware has a tremendous amount to lose, if the projections are right,” McCabe said.

By Aaron Nathans and Jeff Montgomery
The News Journal

Contact Aaron Nathans at 324-2786 or anathans@delawareonline.com.
Contact Jeff Montgomery at 678-4277 or jmontgomery@delawareonline.com.

11 February 2007

delawareonline.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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