In a bid to help launch offshore wind power in the United States, the Obama administration said Thursday that it was moving forward to lease four areas off the Mid-Atlantic coast.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said federal environmental reviews for "wind energy areas" off Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia are now complete and find "no significant environmental impacts" from their development. That finding clears the way for companies to seek leases. A similar announcement for the Massachusetts coast is expected today.
"The wind potential off the Atlantic coast is staggering, and no developer should have to wait nine to 10 years to get a lease," Salazar told reporters. He said the goal is to hold auctions and issue leases this year.
Wind power has expanded quickly in the United States — up 33% annually in each of the past five years — but all of that growth has occurred onshore. Offshore projects have been proposed, but none is in operation or under construction. Only one, Cape Wind in Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound, has been approved after a decade of wrangling.
The American Bird Conservancy has expressed concerns about bird deaths due to wind turbines. Yet, the Maryland and Virginia offshore lease areas "are not the worst places for birds," the group's vice president Mike Parr said. He said it helps that those states' wind developments would be at least 10 miles off the coast.
Dominion Virginia Power said it's interested in building offshore turbines but cost is an issue. Mary Doswell, a senior vice president of the state's largest electric utility, said that absent tax credits, power from the turbines costs about 28 cents per kilowatt hour, while the utility's rates now run 11 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour.
"Wind is a great resource, and you can do it with scale, but we've got to work on this cost equation," Doswell said.
The wind industry and environmental groups welcomed Salazar's announcement. Christopher Long of the American Wind Energy Association said the streamlining of offshore development could shave two years off what is now a seven- to nine-year approval process.
That long process is one reason why the U.S. lags behind Europe, which has 53 offshore wind projects, said Katherine Kennedy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. She said the four Mid-Atlantic wind areas are a good place to start, because their waters are shallower than those off the Pacific.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratories estimates that all of the USA's offshore wind resources could produce 4,000 gigawatts of electricity, which is four times the nation's current electricity capacity.