A proposal for a 130-turbine wind farm in the waters of Nantucket Sound took another critical step forward on Tuesday when Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar announced the approval of a construction and operations plan for the project.
Although it is not the final approval needed by the developers of the Cape Wind project, it is perhaps the most important of the remaining steps in the federal approval process for what would be the first offshore wind farm in the United States.
“The project is the first of its kind in the U.S., so for that reason, each step is significant, not just for us but for the whole industry,” Dennis Duffy, vice president of Cape Wind Associates, said in an interview after the announcement. “This is a major step.”
After nearly a decade of painstakingly slow progress, the Massachusetts wind farm has gained momentum over the last 12 months. Tuesday’s announcement that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement – a division of the Interior Department – had approved the construction and operations plan follows last April’s federal record of decision on the proposal and the award of a lease to Cape Wind in October.
Meanwhile, the project has secured all of its major state approvals and has also had an agreement to sell half its power ratified by Massachusetts state regulators. Governor Patrick supports development of the wind farm.
The 468-megawatt wind farm, estimated to cost $2 billion or more, is on schedule to begin construction this fall, said Duffy. It will be staged in New Bedford.
The construction and operations plan, an 800-page document put together by Cape Wind’s engineers, was thoroughly vetted by the Interior Department, Salazar said.
“The Department has taken extraordinary steps to fully evaluate Cape Wind’s potential impacts on environmental and cultural resources of Nantucket Sound,” he said in a statement. “By signing the construction and operations plan today, we are even closer towards ushering in our nation’s first offshore wind energy facility while creating jobs.”
At a news conference in Boston, where he made the announcement, Salazar said that the Obama administration is looking at ways to streamline the federal permitting process for offshore wind development.
“Taking 10 years to permit an offshore wind farm like Cape Wind is simply unacceptable,” said Salazar, according to the Associated Press.
Any shortening of the process, which by some estimates takes at least seven years to get through, is good news for other developers, including the Providence-based Deepwater Wind. The company is planning a demonstration wind farm with 5 to 8 turbines off Block Island that would be followed by a project with up to 200 turbines in waters to the northeast. The Block Island project is the subject of a pending state Supreme Court appeal.
“We’re all learning how to build this industry,” said Jeffrey Grybowksi, Deepwater’s chief administrative officer, adding that the more practice federal regulators have reviewing offshore wind projects, the faster those reviews should take place.
And Cape Wind is a bellwether for the industry as a whole.
“We clearly are encouraged when a fellow development company makes progress,” Grybowski said.
Cape Wind must still overcome challenges. A host of lawsuits have been filed against the project. The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a leading opponent, said development of the wind farm is not guaranteed.
“Today’s announcement was nothing more than the same political posturing from the Obama and Patrick administrations that we have seen for years, a blatant attempt to declare victory in a battle that is far from over,” Audra Parker, president and CEO of the group, said in a statement.
Duffy said there is no merit to the lawsuits and said they would go nowhere. But his company must still deal with another issue. It has yet to find a buyer for the other half of the power that the wind farm will generate.
“We intend to proceed nonetheless,” said Duffy, who expressed confidence that a second power purchase agreement would be tied up.
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