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U.S. Offshore Wind Hits the Fast Track... Just Two Decades Behind Europe

The nascent U.S. offshore wind industry has finally hit the federal fast track thanks to a new Smart from the Start initiative announced this week, which aims to speed up approvals of wind farms off the Atlantic coast. Even so, the U.S. offshore wind industry has a lot of catching up to do.

The U.S. may be a leader in land-based wind installations, but it lags considerably in the offshore arena. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 did authorize the Interior Department to issue leases for renewable energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf. But that's about as far as offshore wind got.

There are no offshore wind farms currently operating, although three -- Cape Wind in federal waters off Massachusetts; Deepwater Wind off of Rhode Island; and another project offshore New Jersey -- are in various stages of development. There's also a Great Lakes project in the works and Google (GOOG), along with other cleantech investors, is supporting a massive backbone transmission project off the Mid-Atlantic coast.

Still progress even on these offshore hopefuls has been slow, to say the least. Cape Wind, for example, has been in the works for a decade.

Meanwhile, 118 offshore wind turbines totaling 333 megawatts were installed and connected to the grid in Europe during the first half of 2010 alone. Overall 16 offshore wind farms totaling 3,972 megawatts were under construction in the first six months of the year, according to a report from the European Offshore Wind Industry. The total installed offshore wind capacity in Europe was 2,396 megawatts as of June 30, 2010.

So what will the Smart from the Start program actually do? In short, it's meant to speed up the process. Here are a few of the details:

  • The program is similar to the Interior Department's solar on federal lands fast-track approval process and will focus on offshore wind projects proposed for the Outer Continental Shelf off the Atlantic Coast, which is regulated by the U.S. government;
  • The feds will identify in the areas offshore with the most wind potential (they're calling these Wind Energy Areas);
  • The federal Bureau if Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the same folks in charge of offshore drilling, will identify WEAs offshore Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Rhode Island and Massachusetts (with help from state officials) in the next 60 days. The process for other Atlantic states will follow.
  • If no significant impacts, meaning environmental, in these areas, BOEMRE will offer leases in these areas by the end of 2011 or early 2012.
I'm guessing the offshore oil and gas industry folk are steaming over what they surely will interpret as a shift in priorities.

Photo from Flickr user m.prinke, CC 2.0