Offshore wind must be integral part of nation's energy mix

As Congress works on the issues of carbon emissions and energy security, one of the measures that has moved to the forefront in both the House and Senate bills is a provision that would establish a national renewable energy standard (RES).  If it becomes law, the RES would require power companies to generate approximately 15-20 percent (depending on the legislation’s final outcome) of their energy from renewable sources and energy efficiency by 2021.

A frequent criticism of the RES is that it is too bold, especially since access to wind or solar power to meet the standard is severely limited in certain regions of the country, such as the northeast.  One renewable energy solution that can be viable in the northeast and other regions is offshore wind, which has great potential to become a vital part of our nation’s energy mix.

Thanks to new rules established by the 2005 energy law, as well as recent Bush and Obama U.S. Department of Interior actions, we now have the ability to site and build large-scale, wind-powered electric generating facilities, making it possible to supply urban centers with substantial amounts of clean energy.

Several factors are powerfully driving interest in offshore wind, including the demand for clean energy sources, the lack of windy lands available for large-scale development in densely populated coastal states, and the successful development of offshore wind energy in other countries.

The benefits of offshore wind are significant. Offshore wind farms can be located relatively near urban centers where energy costs and needs are high, and where it is impractical to site onshore wind turbines. Twenty-eight of the 48 contiguous states have coastal boundaries. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports that these states use 78 percent of the nation’s electricity, yet only six of the states have adequate land-based wind energy resources.

Offshore wind sites are also more effective than most land-based locations because winds tend to blow harder offshore. The DOE estimates that there is more than 900,000 MW of potential commercial wind energy off the U.S. coast.

Moreover, opportunities for offshore wind projects will likely prompt the development of new industries and jobs.  And, most importantly, it’s at work today. In Europe there are 26 offshore wind projects providing some 1,200 MW of electricity.  These offshore operations are proving less disruptive to the habitat, and even the highly visible near–shore projects are being embraced by their neighbors.

During my tenure at the Energy Department, the DOE invested in offshore wind R&D, with the understanding that a viable program would be vital to developing clean and affordable energy. That work continues today with new stimulus funds for project development, and it has been reinforced by the Department of Interior’s expeditious move to issue final offshore wind rules, allowing the siting of facilities to proceed on the outer continental shelf (OCS).

But for this industry to flourish more help from Washington is needed.  In particular, policymakers should consider:

•    Establishing and continuing a policy of developing offshore wind as a vital part of the mainstream energy mix;

•    Streamlining and adequately supporting the process for siting and development. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has never before permitted offshore wind on the OCS. Its learning curve will be steep, and the MMS is understaffed for the workload to come. MMS needs the budgetary support required to get the job done.

•    Developing policies that provide incentives and support to foster early development of offshore wind energy, such as DOE loan guarantees and extension of the investment tax credit grant program for offshore wind.

•    Coordinating offshore wind with smart grid initiatives and creating rules and processes for transmission and grid integration that allows facilities to serve more than one state.
Renewable energy provides us with a key piece of the solution to some of our most urgent energy needs. For certain regions of the country, especially those along the Atlantic coast, offshore wind appears to be the most effective renewable resource because it can efficiently provide the energy where it’s needed most, high-demand urban centers.  The “fuel” for offshore wind has no cost and is produced domestically with no emissions. Moreover, it is scaleable, cost competitive and can be implemented in the very near term in comparison to all other renewable resources.  Thus, the case for offshore wind is obvious, and I would urge Republicans and Democrats to support measures to harness the potential of this valuable resource.
Spencer Abraham, former U.S. Secretary of Energy from 2001-2005, is currently Chairman & CEO of The Abraham Group LLC.  He is also a member of the board of managers of Deepwater Wind.

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