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Atlantic wind power ‘backbone’ plan amended? Plan now envisions Jersey-only offshore cable

A first-of-its-kind plan to deliver offshore wind power to electricity users has been blowing in the wind. But developers seeking coveted ratepayer subsidies are re-imagining it as a New Jersey-only project, rousing new interest from government policy-makers.

The United States still doesn’t have any offshore wind farms despite years of discussion. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation in 2010 to facilitate use of the technology here, spurring a group of investors, including Google Inc., to pledge $5 billion to build a 350-mile underwater transmission spine from northern New Jersey to Norfolk, Va.

Part of the idea was to link wind farms planned from Boston to Virginia so each could offset dips in power generation by the others and make the power supply more reliable.

At the time, NRG Energy still planned a wind farm off of Delaware and interest in a similar outpost off of Ocean City, Md., was growing.

Since then, however, NRG Energy has shelved its Delaware plan and progress in Maryland has dcragged on slowly.

But a New Jersey group has a plan to retool the transmission spine to exclude service to other states – to route power only to New Jersey stations at Lacey, Jersey City and south of Atlantic City. It would handle power from planned offshore wind farms 12 to 15 miles off the coast of Atlantic City and is designed to add more appeal to energy regulators, who can grant development incentives, said Robert Mitchell, chief executive officer of the management company, New Jersey Energy Link.

“This will become an electric superhighway connecting northern, central and southern New Jersey with the potential to strengthen New Jersey’s electric grid and power 1 million homes,” Mitchell said. “It will be the most modern transmission system in the world.”

Mitchell said build-out of the transmission link through three phases could carry as much as 3,000 megawatts of electricity and create 20,000 jobs, producing $9 billion in new economic activity for the state, he said. Other entities would build the wind turbines, which would generate enough energy to power three million homes.

It would be up to ratepayers to shoulder much of the costs, though Mitchell said system efficiencies can offset some of the sting. Like solar power, wind power costs more per kilowatt hour than other kinds of energy but has an environmental benefit of no carbon pollution.

In the New Jersey Legislature, Senate bill 2611 and an identical Assembly bill would guarantee “ratepayers’ cost responsibility for the project’’ as required by PJM Interconnection, operator of the nation’s largest electrical grid.

Christie hasn’t indicated if he’ll sign the measure if it reaches his desk but a spokesman said it and other like bills will be given “full and careful consideration.’’

The spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said the Christie administration outlined high hopes for offshore wind in the state’s energy master plan.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the top Democrat in the Legislature, is sponsor of S-2611 along with a prominent Republican, Kevin O’Toole. Sweeney is in charge of assigning bills to committee but that hasn’t happened yet.

There’s no timetable for when the bill will advance, according to legislative aide Chris Donnelly, who said Sweeney “is working with Sen. O’Toole and interested stakeholders on the legislation before moving it forward.’’

Division of Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand said a resolution proposed by the New Jersey Legislature supporting the project is premature.

“If wind gets built, there are competing ways to get electricity to shore. One of them is to build radial lines from the wind farms to the shore. The other is this backbone transmission system that’s been pushed by Google. Right now that’s not included in the regional transmission planning because we have no idea whether or not we’re going to need that line,” Brand said. “State regulators have not supported that because we don’t know yet whether we’re going to have offshore wind farms and will need the transmission system.”

Jeff Tittel, state director of the Sierra Club, said the revision to a New Jersey-only project “makes it a much better idea that it was.”

“The concern is that we have to get the windmills. I don’t know if we should be building a power line until we know if we’re going to have wind turbines off the coast,” he said.

Google, which has already invested more than $1 billion in renewable energy projects, is working in New Jersey with Bechtel Group Inc., the U.S. contractor that built the Hoover Dam and the English Channel tunnel. Bechtel would build the first phase of the transmission line.