The federal government is poised to auction to wind farm developers 2,434 square miles of the continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean, which would allow wind farms to sprout 10 miles off the shores of six states, from Massachusetts to Virginia.
Extensive efforts are underway to avoid the fiasco of the first proposed offshore wind farm in U.S. waters. That 24-square mile project off the coast of Cape Cod unleashed a fierce, decade-long battle that still lingers in the courts. Although Europe has had offshore wind farms for many years, the United States remains without even one.
The plan to auction leases to offshore wind farm developers represents an enormous commitment to a potentially vast new industry.
Much is at stake: Wind turbines in the Atlantic alone could generate more than 1,000 gigawatts of power, an amount equal to the country's current total energy-generating capacity, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), part of the Interior Department.
The area to be leased is about the size of Delaware. Included are 125 square miles off the coast of Maryland, 161 square miles off Delaware and 176 square miles off Virginia. Leases will also be auctioned off the coast of New Jersey and Rhode Island, but the lion's share — 1,161 square miles — is off Massachusetts. The auction is planned before the end of this year; an exact date hasn't yet been set.
The legal battles and political wrangling over the relatively tiny Cape Wind project seem never-ending. This time, however, as the federal government tries to jump-start a homegrown, renewable energy source, it is anticipating and trying to address in advance every possible objection.
"There were many lessons learned from Cape Wind. Try not to build too close to billionaires that like to go sailing in Nantucket Sound was one of them," said Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, an organization that represents eight major developers.
His comment refers to the fierce resistance to Cape Wind funded in large part by oil heir billionaire William Koch, who owns a home in Cape Cod. Opposition created strange bedfellows, namely Koch and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Koch, who has bankrolled conservative efforts and candidates to oppose the Democratic Party's environmental protection initiatives, this time helped finance an alliance that, along with objecting to the higher cost of energy generated by wind turbines, cited environmental concerns.
The challenges by opponents of Cape Wind illuminated a number of concerns about wind farms, including spoiled views and potential hazards to birds, marine life and underwater archaeological sites.
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BOEM, through a variety of studies, is anticipating those issues as part of its "Smart from the Start" leasing program.
The view of wind farms from land — perhaps the most contentious issue of Cape Wind — has been the easiest to address. The areas to be auctioned all start more than 10 miles offshore, as opposed to the five miles set for Cape Wind.
In addition to incorporating lessons learned with Cape Wind, the agency is grappling with the legacy of a poorly situated land-based wind farm in California that has killed thousands of raptors, souring some environmentalists on wind power.
Before opening offshore plots to wind farms — the total area is more than 1.5 million acres — the government is spending millions to study the distribution and behavior of such federally protected migratory species as red knots, roseate terns and piping plovers, as well as of diving birds, which forage on the continental shelf.
By the end of March, 14 red-throated loons, 11 surf scoters and six northern gannets had been captured and surgically implanted with satellite transmitters to determine the habitat of these diving birds. The study is part of a $1.4 million project being carried out by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Cape Wind really helped focus attention on what we didn't know and what we needed to know for offshore wind in order to estimate risk," said Taber Allison, director of research at the American Wind and Wildlife Institute. (The institute is a partnership of conservation organizations and wind industry companies.) Allison is also an adviser to BOEM's outer continental shelf scientific committee and formerly a vice president at Mass Audubon, which endorsed Cape Wind after three years of survey and tracking of terns and long-tailed ducks in Nantucket Sound.
"The challenge for BOEM is they're dealing with an area that's far larger and for which we have very little data," he said. "We don't have armies of birders offshore."
European experience with wind turbines has revealed little risk of collision with seabirds but possibly some habitat displacement. To be safe, BOEM is trying to stay out of the birds' way. The 1,161-square-mile leasing area near Massachusetts, announced in May, was shrunk from more than 3,000 square miles in the past year in deference to long-tailed ducks, which forage in the area, as well as to commercial fishing interests.
"They appear to be very responsive to the interests of the fishermen," said Eric Hansen, a third-generation scalloper out of New Bedford, Mass. However, he added, "there's always the question about whether they made the area so large to make it look good when they knew they were going cut it down anyways, but it on the surface it's been very good."
Underwater, BOEM has been evaluating more subtle factors. Studies funded by the agency are exploring the effect on sharks and rays of electromagnetic fields generated by undersea cables that will connect the turbines. It is also evaluating the effects of pile-driving and turbine noise on whales, sea turtles and fisheries.
"We're really looking at everything from A to Z," said Mary Boatman, environmental studies chief at BOEM's office of renewable energy programs.
BOEM is also taking pains to protect man-made resources.
The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe of Martha's Vineyard sued Cape Wind, claiming the facility would destroy submerged cultural tribal resources. The turbines, the suit said, would sit on what was once exposed land used by the tribe many thousands of years ago.
To avoid similar conflicts, BOEM is inventorying possible submerged archaeological sites throughout the once-dry Atlantic continental shelf — an effort that draws from sources as varied as paleo-climate models to records of mastodon and mammoth bones pulled up by commercial scallop dredgers.
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It will probably take several years for developers to start building wind farms in the newly leased areas. So despite its trials, Cape Wind may still be the first offshore wind farm built in the country.
It is the only such federally permitted facility and has secured power purchase agreements with Massachusetts' major utilities. One of those contracts expires if developers fail to start construction by 2016.
But the project still faces legal challenges, perhaps most seriously from a federal appeals court. In that case, the Koch-funded alliance had challenged a Federal Aviation Administration ruling that the wind farm would not pose a threat to pilots. The alliance obtained internal documents in which FAA employees said they felt political pressure to make the ruling; they were not specific about who made them feel pressured.
If future projects avoid similar legal hurdles, offshore wind farms still face head winds from competition with cheap and plentiful natural gas. Moreover, federal investment tax credits for wind power are set to expire at the end of the year. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said he would not renew the tax credits if elected.
But with such companies as Google investing billions in creating a cable transmission backbone for the thousands of wind turbines that could spin offshore one day, some experts think wind is a good bet for a warming planet, and more than worth the initial investment.
"We're not a new technology — the offshore wind industry has been operating in Europe since 1991," said Lanard. "The U.S. is two decades behind. To catch up, we have to make big investments, just like nuclear, oil, gas and coal had to make big investments at the start."
Brannen, a writer living on Martha's Vineyard, is a recent Ocean Science Journalism Fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.