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Offshore windpower / Growing doubts

Like a lot of people, we have been enthusiastic supporters of offshore wind turbines. Imagine: An endless, nonpolluting source of electrical power. No greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. Safer than nuclear power. And coastal South Jersey could be the hub of a burgeoning offshore-wind industry, boosting the regional economy in dozens of ways.

It’s a pretty picture. That’s for sure.

Problem is, it may be a flawed picture.

Last week, NRG Energy, of Princeton, announced it was abandoning its plans to put a 200-megawatt windfarm off the coast of Delaware and would drop any plans for a windfarm off New Jersey.

The company pointed to delays in getting state and federal financing programs up and running, along with the expiration of federal tax and production credits at the end of 2012 and the elimination by Congress of a loan-guarantee program.

NRG’s decision is “a clear signal that state and federal authorities are not moving fast enough,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Well, maybe. But the company’s decision also reflects growing doubts about the economic viability and even the environmental benefit of offshore wind power.

Offshore wind power is incredibly expensive, for all the obvious reasons – construction in the open ocean, the harsh marine environment, the logistics of getting the power ashore.

“Offshore wind will not happen unless there are copious amounts of government support. It’s all a question of the subsidy. That is what it comes down to,” Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with Glenrock Associates in New York, told njspotlight.com.

Proponents of wind power invariably react to such statements by noting the huge government subsidies given to the fossil-fuel industry – but that’s the only time these same people speak glowingly of those subsidies. Besides, the underlying economics of the oil industry are sound; the underlying economics of the offshore wind industry may not be sound.

Furthermore, critics note that because wind power is intermittent, or at least variable, no coal-fired power plant has ever been shuttered because of wind power. The power plants have to be there for when the wind isn’t. Some critics even say that coal plants work less efficiently – and pollute more – when they must share the grid with wind power.

It’s pretty to picture offshore windpower saving the world.

But, unfortunately, it may not be realistic.