Offshore Wind Power Projects on the Edge

by Patricia Fleischauer, TRC Solutions

First there was Cape Wind and its long-running campaign to overcome hurdles to site a wind farm on Nantucket Sound. Now numerous offshore proposals have emerged in the Northeast, and they continue to be plagued by uncertainties.

When a wind proposal sits on the edge–that is, bordering a second political jurisdiction–the regulatory process only gets more complicated.

The Edge Issues

Several onshore projects’ recent challenges show what can happen when projects are on the edge of two or more jurisdictions. An early question in project development often concerns the permits and environmental reviews needed to initiate construction. Accompanying this is interest in what studies will be required for the permit or review, how much they will cost and how long they will take. Often the only project information available is a concept, which can include a preliminary layout, general idea of the number of turbines, general idea of the size and a line diagram of the access road and collector system. The definition of needed permits and environmental reviews then is focused largely on physical land disturbance, especially to protected resources such as wetlands or habitats of important species.

Similarly, a general idea of overall land disturbance can contribute to one’s understanding whether a state comprehensive environmental review will be required. It is uncommon now–often termed the project assessment or critical-flaw review–to consider what happens outside these areas of physical disturbance. While much time can be spent trying to determine the right-of-way for a road or transmission line, again the focus is on direct, physical disturbance.

Being on the edge of a political jurisdiction can introduce issues beyond the most obvious questions of physical disturbance. A review of development regulations at local, state and federal levels suggests that what happens when project effects spill over from one jurisdiction to another is not well-understood. With rare exception, regulations are silent, although notable efforts are being made to correct this.

Edge issues that projects have encountered include the following examples:

  • Highland New Wind Development in Virginia found itself having a nationally registered landmark just across the border in West Virginia. Concern for the aesthetic enjoyment of this historic resource introduced the possibility of additional regulatory review that would go beyond Virginia and introduce more time before the project could obtain permission to construct.
  • One proposed project had a preliminary site layout that would have been developed on lands bordering a national forest. While the turbine towers met the setback requirements, the blades, depending on wind orientation, had the possibility of passing over the airspace above the forest boundary. The project never went beyond preliminary concept, but park airspace invasion and what review this would trigger was noted as something to be resolved if the project were to proceed.
  • Several projects have been proposed for development on both sides of the St. Lawrence River in New York. The state’s comprehensive environmental review requirement has necessitated an environmental impact statement with the lead agency at the local level. While complying fully with the state review requirements, none of these border projects has been required to look across the river and consider possible impacts in Canada. The Save the River interest group asserts that there will be cumulative impacts between the U.S.-based projects and those proposed in Ontario, and they should be addressed.
  • Several projects are being proposed for the Great Lakes. As developers push to move projects farther offshore to reduce their visibility, the risk exists on both sides of the Great Lakes that these projects will wind up at the international border. What mechanism is there for the evaluation of the combined effects of these projects or will each be evaluated independently?

The Environmental Review Process

Anticipating border issues, Massachusetts and Rhode Island signed a memorandum of understanding that specifies the environmental review procedure for projects proposed offshore in an area of common interest. It does not specify what would happen to projects in other offshore areas along the border between the states, either in state or federal waters. Notable is what the decision suggests for other projects in a similar situation.

First, by identifying an area of common interest and dictating the environmental review process, it addresses one of developers’ most important issues: understanding the regulatory process. By answering upfront how a project will be reviewed, it also encourages developers to place a priority on this area over others as a possible project location. This preference could extend to making the area more attractive than one that would be proximate to another state.

Proposed projects, according to the agreement, would be reviewed using the Rhode Island ocean zoning plan as a guide. The memorandum of understanding specifies how the states will share in the project’s anticipated economic benefits; this is in the absence of any specific project proposal for the area.

The area of common interest is in federal waters, and by definition there will be federal involvement. Is it possible that because the two states provided a first important building block, the federal agencies could do something similar so developers could understand the process ahead and schedule orderly development to proceed?

Cape Wind is no longer the only project during which environmental review delays have impacted schedule severely. NRG Bluewater Wind sought and was granted a two-year extension in its Delaware project because of delays in obtaining the air permit required to install the met tower needed to collect several years of data.

After embarking on an ambitious undertaking following North Carolina’s decision to have an operational demonstration wind project within a year of its decision to pursue offshore wind, Duke Energy Corp. abandoned its efforts, citing expense.

Because these projects have been abandoned or delayed, efforts to develop wind on the Great Lakes remain some of the best options to develop good wind resources near major load centers. Almost all of the projects will face edge or border issues.

Addressing the Problem

Community acceptance along U.S. and Canadian shorelines remains critical. Can these projects proceed if they are moved as far offshore as possible and if we quickly confront the many edge issues associated with such location? Could we agree that such a location would be good for all concerned and initiate now the cumulative studies interest groups suggest and work cooperatively with the Ontario ministries to develop a memorandum of understanding similar to what Massachusetts and Rhode Island have demonstrated?

As developers seek to eliminate or to minimize uncertainties and complications that accompany wind projects, they soon must attempt to address expected edge issues.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island have undertaken early, extensive planning efforts in hopes to develop wind in areas that are best for residents of those states. A similar effort in the Great Lakes might have the same benefit for that area’s development.

Author

Patricia Fleischauer is a vice president at TRC Solutions, an environmental engineering and consulting firm based in Lowell, Mass. Visit http://trcsolutions.com for more information.

 

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