Offshore Wind Farms Still On Distant Horizon

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This past week, Google announced that it's becoming a major investor in a huge offshore wind project. Those wind farms don't yet exist, but Google's betting developers will come running soon enough. Experts, however, warn that offshore wind faces high hurdles ahead.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The tech company Google continues to inch its way into the clean energy industry. This past week, Google announced a major investment in a huge undersea project designed to bring electricity from offshore wind farms to the cities of the Mid-Atlantic.

One of the biggest challenges in the whole debate over clean energy is getting the power from the remote areas, on land or sea, to the population centers that need it.

And as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, there's an ocean of red tape and bureaucracy to get through first.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: The wind farms that would send power on this new offshore grid don't even yet exist. But Google and Trans-Elect, the company planning to build the $5 billion project, say once they get approval, wind developers will come running. It seems simple enough, but not if it's anything like ITC Holdings' experience. That company has been trying to build a massive transmission line to connect the windy Great Plains to power-hungry Chicago and points east.

Ms. LINDA BLAIR (Executive Vice President, ITC Holdings): It definitely has been a regulatory quagmire.

SHOGREN: Linda Blair is a vice president of the Michigan-based transmission company.

Ms. BLAIR: If we did not have any of sort of the regulatory quagmire, we could build it within two years.

SHOGREN: Instead, the company estimates it will take at least 10 to 15 years. The project needs a slew of approvals from an array of federal and state agencies, and regional organizations. There are studies to be done on impacts to wildlife, landscapes and historic treasures. And people often oppose the lines because they don't want them in their backyards.

Offshore cables face additional hurdles because different federal agencies are in charge that haven't even written regulations yet.

Blair is skeptical about Google and Trans-Elect's projections that they'll start laying cable offshore in three years.

Ms. BLAIR: They clearly need to not underestimate the regulatory burden that exists, on getting transmission infrastructure built in this country.

SHOGREN: Energy Secretary Steven Chu says he's troubled by the shortage of transmission lines for clean energy. He was talking about the problem this week with his assistant secretary in charge of electricity.

Secretary STEVEN CHU (Department of Energy): And I said, well, can we get it to go faster? And she said, well, it's actually moving much faster than it used to move.

SHOGREN: But he says, clearly not fast enough. The problem is that historically, new transmission lines have been built after new power plants. Debra Lew of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says it's difficult to reverse the order. That's because public utility commissions usually have to show that the power from a certain plant is needed by their customers before they can give their approval and pass on the huge costs of building the lines.

Dr. DEBRA LEW (Project Manager, National Renewable Energy Laboratory): Essentially, in most cases, a utility would have to put out that money ahead of time and bear the risk that maybe the wind developers don't show up. And that's a lot of risk to take.

SHOGREN: Texas has broken the logjam. It has been building new lines to windy areas before wind farms set up shop. But the process becomes much trickier when multiple states are involved.

Still, Lew is ecstatic that a hot company like Google is taking on this extremely nerdy challenge, and if the company's executives asked for her advice...

Dr. LEW: I would tell them, go full-speed ahead. I think this is a great move not just to try and jumpstart offshore wind development, but also to highlight how we really need to really work on this transmission problem and get past some of these regulatory barriers.

SHOGREN: But some experts aren't so upbeat. None of the developers of current offshore projects are ready to sign up for Google's grid.

RJ Lyman is a lawyer who represents renewable energy developments. He says given how expensive offshore wind farms are, it might be those projects that fail Google's grid and not the other way around.

Mr. RJ LYMAN (Attorney): Sometimes you build a highway to nowhere but then things grow up around it. Before you know it, the McDonald's, the Wal-Mart get built. Maybe that will happen here.

SHOGREN: Lyman worries that the huge costs and permitting challenges will prevent those offshore wind projects from ever being built.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News. Washington.

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