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Bowles: $91M plan not for Cape Wind

The Patrick administration started crafting a plan last May to buy a $91 million, publicly funded ship whose main job would be to plant wind turbines in the ocean floor – yet the state’s energy czar has insisted the vessel isn’t intended for the controversial Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound.

“This has nothing to do with Cape Wind,” Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles told the Herald in August, about two weeks before a quasi-state agency he chairs abruptly postponed its ship purchase plans in September.

Robert Keough, Bowles’ spokesman, said the state postponed its plans because the federal Department of Energy is now looking at ways to meet the need for a wind-turbine ship. A recent DOE report says more study is needed.

Keough said the postponement is “absolutely not” related to next week’s hotly contested election. Gov. Deval Patrick is the only one of the state’s four gubernatorial candidates who supports Cape Wind.

The quasi-public, utility ratepayer-funded Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which Bowles heads, has been exploring the acquisition of a windmill-planting ship as a revenue-generating asset.

“This could pay for itself in a few years,” Bowles said.

There are 41 offshore wind-power projects under review in the United States, but no U.S.-flagged vessel equipped to transport and plant turbines at sea. The ships exist in Europe, but federal law requires U.S.-flagged vessels on federally subsidized projects.

Last spring, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to the State House and, standing next to Patrick and Bowles, announced Cape Wind’s approval. The $2 billion project would be the nation’s first offshore wind power project. Critics say it could become one of the nation’s most-heavily subsidized private developments.

Weeks after Salazar’s announcement, Danish ship builder Kurt Thomsen, a Cape Wind consultant, told state officials that it would cost $91 million to “deliver a specialized vessel for installing offshore wind farms.” His brief report included a time-line “to allow the vessel to be ready for the Cape Wind Project.”

Thomsen told the Herald he wrote the proposal after Massachusetts Clean Energy Center director Patrick Cloney called and asked for it.

Cloney’s spokeswoman, Kate Plourd, yesterday acknowledged Cloney had made the request. Cloney’s agency controls the $122 million Renewable Energy Trust, a fund that takes in $20 million each year through a surcharge on people’s electricity bills. Bowles serves as chairman of the center’s board of directors.

On Aug. 6, the Clean Energy Center issued a request for proposals, seeking a consultant to develop a plan to acquire the ship “by leveraging public support to underwrite the design and construction.” Days later, Clarendon Hills Consultants, which submitted the only bid for the project, officially registered with the state.

The Somerville-based Clarendon Hills, which lists Thomsen as a non-paid member of the team, wrote in its application that its “business case will be based on the assumption that the Cape Wind Project would be the first Offshore Wind Farm to be installed in the U.S.”

But both Bowles and Cape Wind Associates spokesman Mark Rodgers say Cape Wind doesn’t need and won’t use the proposed vessel. Rodgers said that, because Cape Wind is slated for Nantucket Sound’s relatively calm and shallow waters, it can use an already existing “jack-up barge” to install its turbines.

Thomsen, who noted that Cape Wind did not ask him to propose the vessel purchase plan, said Cape Wind is only a “possible customer.”

Cape Wind critics can’t understand why any government agency would buy a $91 million vessel for private developers. Said Audra Parker, leader of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound: “Why can’t they buy their own boat?”