Friday, May 01, 2009

A sea change for U.S. energy policy

Sometime soon (I'm guessing within the next two months) the U.S. Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service will issue its first lease for an wind energy project on the United States outer continental shelf. After struggling for nearly nine years to gain permission to build the nation's first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind developers have found not just a sympathetic ear -- but an enthusiastic supporter in the White House.

Off shore wind promises to play a major role in President Obama's clean energy future. In fact, Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has emerged as the Administration's most visible spokesperson on energy policy. Indeed, Cape Wind is the first of many proposals seeking to harness the vast offshore wind energy resources along the Atlantic seaboard.
The potential is truly enormous.

That's not to suggest that offshore wind does not have its fair share of skeptics and cynics.(GW)

Ripping Wind

By Ken Silverstein
Energy Biz Insider
May 1, 2009

It may be a lot hot air. But the Obama administration says that wind facilities placed offshore along the East Coast could replace most of the coal-fired power plants now in the United States. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says that the technology to do so currently exists and that it would be a "very real possibility."

The message is consistent with that of the White House, which is that exponential growth in the renewable sector would cut emissions as well as create good jobs. Such highfalutin' comments by officials, however, are getting lampooned by critics. While wind energy will become a more integral part of the nation's energy landscape, it is unlikely for the foreseeable future to dethrone coal, or other natural resources.

"To those of you from the oil and gas industry, I pledge that you will have a seat at the table in this administration," says Secretary Salazar. "I assure you that you will play an important role in helping us meet our nation's energy needs. But President Obama and I believe that we need to be honest about our energy future. A 'drill only' approach -- onshore or offshore -- is not enough."

The secretary's comments are in the context of the Obama administration's desire to create a comprehensive offshore energy plan -- one that does not just look at developing more oil and gas resources but one that also seeks to build wind farms off the eastern shoreline. Indeed, an oil and gas exploration moratorium has expired, necessitating that the Congress formulate a new plan. In that regard, Salazar says that the administration will release its rules in the coming months for offshore wind development.

During the 2008 presidential race, then-candidate Obama was forced to shift gears after gasoline prices shot to $4 a gallon. Before then, he had opposed more offshore drilling, saying that it was not a long-term solution. But his position evolved to the point where he said that the nation would develop a comprehensive offshore energy policy.

Toward that end, the Bush administration had planned to allow more oil and gas drilling in more than 300 million acres offshore but was silent on the issue of developing wind sites there. Obama's team says that its predecessors have relied on 25-year-old geological information and that rushing through new exploration policies is unwise. It will therefore study the issue and then synchronize that with its renewable policies.

According to the Interior Department, harnessing the waters off the Atlantic coast could produce about 25 percent of the nation's electricity demand. The most accessible and economic areas, though, are those in the shallow end, which could still supply states along the East Coast with about 20 percent of their power. Meantime, states along the Pacific Coast are rich with wind but facilities would have to be built in deep waters.

Stable Market

Altogether, the Interior Department says that offshore wind power could generate one million megawatts. If all of that came to fruition, that number would dwarf the amount of currently available coal-fired electricity.

The projection, however, has invited cynicism. For starters, the would-be plants must get regulatory approval from all relevant agencies as well as find the financing in tight credit markets. Moreover, the experience of similar projects in Europe indicates that such plants would generate power between 25 to 35 percent of the time. Back up power, typically fossil-fired, is necessary. Replacing coal with offshore wind is therefore unrealistic.

"The bottom line is that for offshore wind to become a realistic part of the energy mix, three things have to happen," says the Wall Street Journal. "The government has to put a really big price tag on greenhouse-gas emissions to penalize dirtier but cheaper sources of power. Wind turbines have to be made more robust and reliable without increasing their cost. And the wind industry has to find enough offshore and deepwater equipment to install hundreds of huge machines...."

Writer Keith Johnson goes on to say that the cost of building in the deep waters off the eastern coastline would be far greater than other energy forms, even on-shore wind farms. Even the steady stream of high winds -- estimated to have a capacity factor of 45 percent -- will not offset that price, he says. That's because the turbines would constantly need to be maintained because of treacherous conditions.

The good news for wind advocates is that they now enjoy more political power than ever before. Wind capacity has expanded at 29 percent annually over the past five years, making it the fastest growing energy segment in the country. The federal stimulus plan now in effect will furthermore provide loan guarantees to viable renewable energy projects while Congress is considering a comprehensive energy bill that would limit carbon emissions and require renewable portfolio standards.

The U.S. Department of Energy has said that wind could supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs by 2030. But even the industry acknowledges that the policies governing transmission lines must paid for and permitted while at the same time, the grid must be expanded and consolidated. The idea is to transport wind resources from the remote areas where they are generated into the urban regions where they are used.

"To see such growth and to reach five percent, 10 percent, 20 percent and whatever goal this country chooses to set is investment in transmission infrastructure to bring large amounts of low-cost wind power to market, and a national renewable electricity standard to create a U.S.-wide, stable market for capital investment," says Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association.

Wind's market share will rise. But to lament that such power could replace coal-fired electricity is irresponsible. Wind energy must continue to build its standing without giving critics the fodder to discredit it.


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