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Feb 082011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

What a difference a year makes. Just last March, the Obama Administration was gearing up to reopen offshore oil drilling on the Eastern Seaboard.   No doubt this seemed like a good plan to access more domestic oil and answer critics clamoring for more drilling.

Never mind that the U.S., on and offshore, can produce only a small fraction of the oil it consumes.

Then came that BP oil disaster thingy. A blob of black doom darkened the waters and economic prospects throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

It was time for a reassessment. Did we want to play environmental roulette in other states, or learn from our latest brush with the treachery of fossil fuels?

The Obama Administration decided no more roulette. In December, it extended the moratorium on oil drilling off the East Coast and in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

This week, the Administration began unveiling their new vision for the Eastern Seaboard: A network of offshore wind farms from New England to the Carolinas that would power our coastal metropolises. This ambitious plan will take more innovation, more dollars and an incredible amount of work and favorable policy (doable, possible, and difficult) but it will yield a completely U.S.-owned source of renewable power.

And if one of those wind turbines falls before we figure out how to make them all stand up – then we’ll have a massive, terrible Wind Spill, as the satirists pointed out during the BP debacle in 2010.

The Administration announced on Monday that it will help launch offshore wind by underwriting studies addressing anticipated hurdles, such as the high cost of offshore wind projects, special technical challenges posed by siting and installing wind farms five to 25 miles at sea and the lengthy permitting process. (It took the first-ever  U.S. offshore wind project, Massachussett’s Cape Wind, nine years to win full approval.)

The Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy will be cooperating and coordinating this effort to kick start offshore wind. (See their plans in National Offshore Wind Strategy: Creating an Offshore Wind Industry in the United States.) Offshore wind is alluring, because even though it costs more upfront, the ocean’s steady, more powerful winds yield a strong return, more than onshore wind can. The model has been proven in Europe off the coasts of several countries.

To kick start the sector in the U.S., the two agencies are offering about $50 million over five years for plans that advance wind turbine designs, develop open-source computer tools, inter-connectivity models, supply chains and needed core technologies, such as next-generation wind turbine drive trains.

This is a drop in the ocean compared with the billions it will take to develop a fully connected offshore wind infrastructure. But it’s a start.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) strongly supports offshore wind development, which it notes can provide jobs, as well as power.

However, AWEA’s response to Monday’s announcement was tempered by political realities, because despite the Administration’s thumbs up, the industry lacks lawmaker support.

Wind leaders desperately want a Renewable Electricity Standard or RES that sets a national goal for the U.S. to reach a certain percentage of renewable power by a certain date.

Even though President Barak Obama essentially gave the renewable power industry his version of a RES – calling in the State of the Union address, for the U.S. to be at 80 percent renewables by 2035 — Congress has repeatedly failed to introduce, let alone, enact a RES or similar supportive legislation.

Wind, solar and geothermal industry leaders say they need a RES to compete against entrenched coal, gas and oil interests. Some proponents say get rid of all the energy subsidies to level the playing field, but that’s about as likely to happen as Obama’s plan to withdraw oil subsidies to fund renewables.

A RES would be more viable and would send all the right signals.

“The offshore wind industry needs policy certainty to justify investing the billions of dollars necessary to continue growing this industry here at home,” explained Tom Vinson, senior director of Federal Regulatory Affairs for AWEA, responding to Monday’s announcement.

The plan by the Departments of Interior and Energy reveals a “growing commitment by key officials to tap into our nation’s robust offshore winds,” Vinson said.

But that “commitment must continue to grow in all corners of government so the wind power industry itself can grow.”

If this scenario becomes a trend, we’ll have two years of wonderful visioning (and possibly hyperbolic visioning) by federal officials, followed by very little change as Congress brushes off these ideas, holds pat and continues to deny incentives for clean energy.

The refrain could be replayed as the Administration seeks to loft the electric car network that would buoy Detroit and cut carbon emissions; or as it launched a high speed rail system to put Americans on mass transit-par with the rest of the world.

Did you hear? There’s a well known train commuter, name of Joe Biden, who has a plan for that….

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