Interior Secretary Ken Salazar tried to give an adrenaline shot to the U.S. offshore wind industry yesterday by speeding up the process for developers to obtain leases from the federal government.

The regulatory shift could shorten the wait time for permitting wind farms by three years or more, analysts said. There are currently no offshore projects in the United States, but Salazar said he hoped to issue a new round of leases of the outer continental shelf as early as next year.

Department paperwork is a necessary step for much offshore wind development since waters more than three miles offshore are under federal jurisdiction.

This "builds on the lessons we have Learned from the Cape Wind leasing process," said Salazar, referring to the first federally permitted wind farm slated for construction off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

"If we are wise with our planning, we can help build a robust and environmental responsible offshore renewable energy program that creates jobs here at home," Salazar said at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. He was accompanied by U.S. senators and wind advocates.

Noting the almost decade-long wrangle for Cape Wind to get permits, Salazar said he hoped to have new leases issued for other wind projects by late 2011 or early 2012. That is slashing the typical time to get a lease by half.

Helping transmission 'backbone'
"This is a major breakthrough," said Bob Mitchell of Trans-Elect Development Co. LLC, who is spearheading an effort to construct a $5 billion transmission backbone for offshore wind stretching from Virginia to New Jersey. In yesterday's announcement, Salazar said his department would simultaneously speed up the permitting process for transmission lines along with proposed wind farms.

The announcement means that developers will not walk away from the transmission "backbone" project partially funded by Google Inc. when they might otherwise have, Mitchell said. The new rules could slash the typical permitting time for transmission lines from four to two years, he said.

The fast-track process outlined by Salazar, called "Smart from the Start," contains several parts. It is modeled after an existing Interior program for solar development in the Southwest.

Over the next 60 days, the Department will engage in an intense mapping process of appropriate offshore sites in conjunction with federal-state task forces in Atlantic states. The goal with the maps, or wind energy areas, is to identify promising spots for offshore wind upfront, such as locations without commercial fishing traffic or interference with military radar. Other government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense will be consulted on the process.

Information from these agencies can "either support, or be used to avoid, wind farm development in the identified areas," Interior said.

The early mapping in turn should allow Interior to undergo a less time-consuming environmental "assessment" of a wind farm, rather than a longer "environmental impact statement," said Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition. The time for obtaining a lease could be cut by two years or more because of this procedural shift, he said.

After obtaining a lease, though, developers likely will be required to undertake a full environmental impact statement review of their proposed construction and operations plans, Interior said.

Testing the winds
By January, these maps of optimal wind development should be ready in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the Department said. In 2011, additional WEAS could be identified near New York, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, the department said.

Once the department delineates optimal patches for erecting turbines, formal "requests for interest" will be offered to wind companies wanting to build farms on the surveyed regions. Currently, Maryland and Delaware are the only states obtaining such a "request for interest" from the federal government (ClimateWire, Nov. 9 ).

Additionally, the Department said it would eliminate a regulatory step in cases where a wind developer did not face competition from another company for leasing part of the outer continental shelf. That move could cut obtainment of leases by as much as an additional year, Salazar said. Three leases in New Jersey and one in Rhode Island are awaiting approval by Interior, Salazar said.

Environmentalists and industry officials hailed the news as a long-awaited victory over bureaucratic red tape.

"Ocean wind power is the good witch to the bad witch of ocean oil drilling. We are pleased that the government is welcoming the good witch to our shores," said Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana.

Yet Matt DaPrato, an analyst with IHS Emerging Energy Research, said that the Interior move doesn't eliminate the financing challenges facing offshore wind. There are still uncertainties hovering over Cape Wind, for example, after it received an Interior lease in October.

This week, the Massachusetts project cleared a major hurdle with approval of a power purchasing agreement, but it still must find $2 billion worth of financing through a mix of investors and federal incentives to become the nation's first offshore wind farm (ClimateWire, Nov. 23).

Winds off the Atlantic coast hold enough power to fire 1,000 gigawatts of wind energy, according to federal estimates. That is enough to power some 800 million homes, Salazar said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500