For the last decade, the backers of a huge wind power project off the coast of Cape Cod have navigated through stormy community meetings, hidden regulatory snags and verbal cannon blasts from the Kennedy family and a pair of Indian tribes.
Any day now, they will find out whether it was all for naught. The Obama administration, which last week signaled its intention to proceed with other offshore wind projects, is about to decide whether to deep-six the Cape Wind proposal or provide a friendly gale that could carry it to completion.
If approved, the project would most likely be the nation’s first offshore wind farm. And in either case, the ruling by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would have implications from Long Island to Lake Erie. At least half a dozen offshore wind projects that could provide electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers have already been proposed in the shallow waters off the East Coast and the Great Lakes.
A thumbs-down on Cape Wind, some developers say, could gut America’s offshore wind industry before it ever really gets started. “It is imperative that Cape Wind gets built — we need the momentum,” said Peter Giller, chief executive of OffshoreMW, an upstart developer with ambitions to build two 700-megawatt projects off the shores of New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Although offshore wind farms are roughly twice as expensive as land-based ones, developers and advocates say offshore projects have several advantages. Sea and lake breezes are typically stronger, steadier and more reliable than wind on land. Offshore turbines can also be located close to the power-hungry populations along the coasts, eliminating the need for new overland transmission lines. And if the turbines are built far enough from shore, they do not significantly alter the view — a major objection from many local opponents.
Other nations have embraced offshore wind as a major source of renewable energy. In Europe alone, there are currently 830 offshore wind turbines connected to the power grid in nine countries, according to the European Wind Energy Association
In the United States, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that about 90,000 megawatts of electricity could be extracted from offshore winds in coastal waters less than 100 feet deep, the easiest and most cost-effective depths. Most of that potential lies in New England, the mid-Atlantic and the Great Lakes.
If the handful of American projects on the drawing board are built as planned, they would produce some 2,500 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association or about as much as two midsize nuclear power plants.
But despite years of efforts, not a single offshore turbine has been built in the United States. Experts say progress has been slowed by a variety of factors, including poor economics, an uncertain regulatory framework and local opposition.