Offshore wind power has gotten off to a slow start in New Jersey, but that has not stopped the developers of an ambitious plan to transmit the electricity generated by giant turbines from moving forward with their multi-billion dollar project.
The developers of the Atlantic Wind Connection, which envisions building a seabed transmission backbone linking offshore power generators to onshore customers, are rallying political support for the project, casting it as a cost-effective solution that will make New Jersey the center of the nation’s offshore power industry.
“Any state that makes a commitment to offshore wind, the first mover is going to have advantages,” said Robert L. Mitchell, the chief executive of Trans-Elect Development Company, a transmission-line business behind the project, whose investors include Google.
But so far no power generators have endorsed Atlantic Wind’s plan to tie their turbines, which would be located a dozen or so miles offshore, to the grid. They are skeptical of the project’s need and cost, which would be added to electricity rates.
“They’re pushing their project, and they’re trying to come up with reasons to approve it,” said Stefanie Brand, the New Jersey rate counsel, who acts as the state’s public advocate. “I think at this point it’s premature.”
Atlantic Wind, which envisions eventually tying together offshore turbines from Virginia to New Jersey, this month recast the first phase of its plan as the New Jersey Energy Link, a 189-mile-long line that would connect wind farms off southern New Jersey to consumers in the northern part of the state. It selected Bechtel, the international engineering firm, to design the $1.8 billion project.
With wind projects in limbo, awaiting approval of a state subsidy system later this year and federal offshore leases, the Atlantic Wind developers say their plan does not need wind farms to get started. They say the submarine system line will also transmit conventionally generated power to congested northern New Jersey.
“Is the Atlantic Wind Connection about wind any more?” said Michael Jennings, a spokesman for Public Service Enterprise Group, the New Jersey energy company that is an investor in one of the offshore wind projects.
PSEG says it favors building its own transmission lines directly to shore.
Atlantic Wind’s supporters also say the backbone project would enhance the reliability of the grid, an emotional selling point in a state still shellshocked by hurricane outages.
“These multiple benefits are so great that it’s difficult for me to think that it’s not in the ratepayers’ interest to see this line developed,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell hopes Gov. Christie, the Legislature, or the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities will buy into the Atlantic Wind concept to win over the regional power grid operator, PJM Interconnection.
“Our investors are excited about our project, but they’re not going to continue to spend tens of millions of dollars on it without a commitment from New Jersey,” Mitchell said.
Brand, the state public advocate, expressed doubt that offshore cable would enhance reliability, since most storm outages are caused by disruptions to local distribution systems.
“I don’t understand why they think it would provide any kind of relief in a Hurricane Sandy type of situation,” she said.
Without hard data from the project’s proponents, analysts have not calculated its effect on rates. “Whether putting a backbone in the ocean is better than direct connections to the shore, I don’t know the answer to that,” Brand said.
The Atlantic Wind venture would be a monumental engineering project, involving the construction of huge transformers that would convert electricity produced by the wind turbines into high-voltage direct-current power. DC power is delivered more efficiently over long distances and under the sea than alternating current, the type of electricity consumed in most homes.
The transmission line’s first segment would connect to the grid at a substation called Cardiff, near Pomona, Atlantic County, to the area about 12 miles offshore that the federal government has identified as the best location for offshore wind.
The cost for the first leg, which would include landfalls and power converters in Cardiff and at its northern terminus in Hudson County, would cost $1.3 billion. A third connection at a substation called Cedar in Ocean County would be built later.
For every 1,000 megawatts of offshore power, the developers would need to install a hub on an ocean platform to convert the electricity to DC power. The hubs would be slightly smaller than a football field and about 10 stories high, and would cost about $500 million each, Mitchell said.
The converters would be built on land before they are floated out to sea, so the prospect of longterm local manufacturing jobs is another selling point for Atlantic Wind.
“New Jersey could really become a major hub of activity that could serve states up and down the coast,” Mitchell said.
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