Three years ago, politicians lauded plans to build a wind farm 13 miles off the coast of Delaware, and two New Jersey firms joined forces to lead the effort: Princeton’s NRG Energy merged with Hoboken’s Bluewater Wind, which had a power purchase deal with Delmarva Power.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said the NRG deal put Delaware in position to be the first state in the nation to host an offshore wind farm.
Flash forward to 2012. NRG pulled out of its deal late last year because no backers were ready to invest based on the project’s income from power it generated, and payments Delaware promised.
“The economics of that industry have not really proven themselves in this country,” said Markell in an interview this spring. “There are 800 turbines operating off the coast of Europe, there are zero off the coast of the United States. It’s not that complicated. The issue is, ‘How much are people willing to pay?’ ”
That question is the one looming over New Jersey now, where Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has high hopes for an offshore wind industry and the jobs it would bring.
For more than a year now, regulators at the Board of Public Utilities have been striving to create Offshore Renewable Energy Certificates, or ORECs, to fund offshore wind projects; a state-created market for solar credits, or SRECs, already helps to fund that industry.
But in the final balance, both mechanisms come from ratepayers’ pocketbooks, and that’s why state ratepayer advocate Stefanie Brand is cautiously vetting wind farm plans.
“As a general proposition, we need to move from fossil fuels to renewables,” Brand said. “I support wind and solar. I support using ratepayer money to jump-start those industries because I think in the longer term that’s going to be a beneficial thing for ratepayers … but I also think it has to be done within reasonable limits so we’re not overspending.”
That led her to warn against one of the first proposals in the state, a small-scale project with six turbines a few miles off the coast of Atlantic City by Fishermen’s Energy.
Its turbines could produce up to 25 megawatts, capable of powering about 10,000 homes. The company has declined to divulge the price tag, but the Press of Atlantic City reported company documents put it at more than $200 million.
The project has all the environmental permits it needs, but got economic criticism this year from Brand’s office and the BPU after its first filing for ORECs.
“When we looked at their original application, they were the most expensive wind farm in the world,” Brand said. “It’s the most expensive on many different levels. … “We’re hoping they’ll be able to scrub things and get it more in line in the next go-round.”
New Fishermen’s CEO, Chris Wissemann, is working on that task in his Atlantic City office, and an application on his desk with more than 3,000 pages is evidence of that.
“People shouldn’t be spooked by the high cost of a demonstration project,” Wissemann said. “It’s high because it’s early in the curve, and it’s high because it’s a little, teeny project. But it does give you the keys to doing it on a larger scale.”
Wisseman said a smaller project could prove to investors that OREC financing works, and he pointed to Department of Energy findings that doing that has economic value.
Daniel Cohen, the founder and president of Fishermen’s, acknowledges the company must persuade Brand – and ratepayers – of its worth.
“You can only build a project if you can finance it,” Cohen said. “You’ve got to pay for it, and the public has to see that the benefits outweigh the costs.”
Several other developers are working on much larger offshore wind proposals for federal waters 12 miles from the Jersey coast.
Those companies are waiting on federal officials examining lease applications. The Fishermen’s team is still working to show the value of its offshore plan.
But at least one New Jersey company is willing to bank on the likelihood that offshore wind is coming soon.
Weeks Marine, a more than 90-year-old Cranford-based marine and tunneling contractor firm, is spending tens of millions of dollars to assemble an enormous barge with a crane in Camden.
“We went ahead and elected to build it in advance of any projects getting approved status,” said Rick Palmer, a vice president for Weeks. “These projects are going to come up, and they’re going to need a vessel.”
Palmer said the efforts of Fishermen’s and the state’s work creating ORECs both made Weeks confident enough to invest.
So last week, welders labored on the new barge that will carry a 2-million pound crane with a 750-ton lifting capacity.
Once in the right spot, the barge will sink 6-foot-wide steel legs deep into the water and jack itself up so it can sink turbine poles into the ocean floor at depths of up to 100 feet.
Until wind farms are ready to go, the boat will do other construction. But some day, it could be part of a new industry in the Garden State.
“I think everybody is really trying to come up with ideas of how to solve this really, really tough problem of finding a way to enable them to get financing,” Brand said. “Sometimes it means you have to say go back to the drawing board. But it doesn’t mean that it hopefully, eventually, doesn’t get done right.”
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