Feds announce rules for offshore energy; Interior Dept. to consider impact on environment, aquatic life
In a move with direct significance for the mid-Atlantic, the U.S. Interior Department on Monday released its final proposal for regulating offshore wind turbines and other “alternative” energy projects in federally controlled waters.
Although work on detailed regulations will continue into next year, the agency plans to take applications during the next 60 days for permits to conduct offshore research on wind or other unconventional energy around the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf.
One Delaware energy venture, Bluewater Wind LLC, already has said that it hopes to put a research platform off Rehoboth Beach next year to collect information needed to support a 30-square-mile lease bid and 150-turbine wind farm. State regulators recently warned that the project would be too expensive to justify an order for energy purchases by Delmarva Power.
“The mid-Atlantic region has 70 percent of the U.S. offshore wind potential in water depths of less than 60 meters,” Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Monday. He added that offshore wind turbines eventually could power tens of millions of homes, based on calculations of wind speeds.
The Interior Department’s plan would create an Alternative Energy and Alternative Use Program that would evaluate and issue leases for wind farms and other energy projects in waters more than three miles offshore, out to a distance of 200 miles.
Environmental impacts would be examined for each site. But the new agency plans to rely heavily on generic “best” practices for protecting birds and aquatic life and for managing disruptions to other interests, including recreational boaters and divers.
Under the plan, federal regulators would streamline reviews by identifying general, nationally accepted methods for limiting or environmental harm, such as avoiding the use of explosives to build foundations for turbines. Officials declined to delve too deeply into “cumulative” effects of all offshore activities on the environment. More research is needed, the agency said, and “offshore development could be unintentionally hindered by inaccurate speculation.”
Kempthorne said offshore wind projects, which install wind-generating turbines atop platforms rooted in the seabed, offer the largest energy potential. “Most impacts would be negligible to moderate,” the agency reported Monday, although developers would have to choose sites carefully for turbines and cables to avoid major threats to some species of birds and marine life.
Delaware’s Public Service Commission and three other state agencies already are considering a proposal by Bluewater Wind to build a wind farm in federal waters 11 to 17 miles east of Rehoboth Beach.
PSC staffers have recommended dropping Bluewater’s plan as too risky and too costly, however, after a study put the 25-year contract cost as high as $2.7 billion in current dollars.
Bluewater has since offered to amend its plan, and reported recently that it hopes to raise an offshore platform next year to collect data on wind, weather, waves and natural resources in the proposed wind farm area.
Lawmakers called on Delmarva Power last year to evaluate its long-term energy needs and to develop new, in-state sources of electricity. Delmarva has argued that Bluewater’s plan will cost ratepayers too much, and is recommending a mix of conservation and new energy developments to meet future needs.
Interior Department officials described the mid-Atlantic as the most promising area for offshore wind. Wave energy could be best exploited in the waters off the Pacific Northwest, while Gulf Stream waters off the coast of Florida may produce the greatest amount of energy from ocean currents.
Several large national environmental groups have supported the offshore proposals for wind. But the American Bird Conservancy, American Littoral Society and others took opposing stands, urging the Interior Department to limit the projects and study threats to birds and fish in greater detail.
“It’s not surprising, the conclusions that they came to. These guys are in the business of opening up the ocean floor to energy development. But I don’t think their conclusions are supported by science,” said Tim Dillngham, who directs the American Littoral Society, a national conservation group.
By Jeff Montgomery
6 November 2007
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