Offshore Wind Proposal Gains Fans in Delaware

Peter Mandelstam, founder and president of  Bluewater Wind

Peter Mandelstam, founder and president of Bluewater Wind, wants to build the country's biggest off-shore wind farm several miles out from the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach, Del. Elizabeth Shogren/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren/NPR

Wind Power Is Booming

Since 2000, the amount of electricity the country gets from wind has more than quadrupled, according to Energy Information Agency statistics.

Yet, wind projects still generate less than 1 percent of the nation's electricity.

Texas has the most wind energy of any state, followed by California, Iowa, Minnesota and Washington. The country's largest wind farm is in Horse Hollow, Texas.

So far, the country has no offshore wind farms. But offshore projects are in various stages of planning and development off Texas, Massachusetts and New York.

A wind farm off the coast of Denmark.

A wind farm off the coast of Denmark. Bluewater Wind hide caption

itoggle caption Bluewater Wind
Kit and Bill Zak

Kit and Bill Zak founded Citizens for Clean Power to fight for pollution-free electricity, like Bluewater Wind's off-shore proposal. Elizabeth Shogren/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren/NPR

On a windy, spring day at Rehoboth Beach, Del., Peter Mandelstam is thinking about using the wind to build what could be the nation's first and largest offshore wind farm.

Public concerns about global warming are helping him sell his ambitious $2 billion project.

His company, Bluewater Wind, is one of three bidders in a Delaware competition that is showing how climate change is influencing Americans' decisions about how they want their electricity generated.

"I fervently believe that the only energy technology in the world today that can make a major difference for global warming is offshore wind," Mandelstam says.

The Delaware competition suggests that people are starting to value the fact that wind farms produce none of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, he adds.

"I've been in the wind business since 1997. From 1997 until 2004, I hardly ever talked about global warming because it was really an issue that people didn't properly perceive. And, had I made that argument, it would have been dismissed." Mandelstam says. "The world changed."

That change has been evident as Delaware ponders its power choices. Lawmakers in Delaware decided to launch the competition last year after electricity prices spiked 60 percent. They emphasized that bids should use environmentally friendly technology.

As the contest has progressed, climate change has played a growing role in the way the bids have been judged, observers and participants say.

"I think it's the real beginning of change. Not just rhetoric but change as we move towards beginning to actively address climate change," says Jeremy Firestone, a professor of public policy at the University of Delaware.

The state is considering three bids: The wind farm, a natural-gas plant and a new-style coal plant that would use new technology to try to cut air pollution, including greenhouse-gas emissions.

At first, it seemed like the coal plant had the inside track. State politicians were excited about using abundant coal in a cleaner way.

But to a lot of people's surprise, the wind project has become a strong contender, in large part, because it appears to be very popular.

"There does appear to be broad and deep support for offshore wind in Delaware," Firestone says.

Firestone and a colleague conducted a survey. They found that nearly 80 percent of Delaware residents were in support of offshore wind power, and only 4 percent were against it.

That's strikingly different than the results of a similar survey Firestone conducted in Cape Cod, Mass., two years ago. Most people there opposed an offshore-wind-power proposal because, they said, it would spoil the scenery.

But in Delaware, hundreds of people offered their support to the wind farm at several public hearings.

One of them was Kit Zak, a literature professor who founded Citizens for Clean Power. As she looked out at the ocean on sunny spring day, she said that for her, the wind turbines would improve the view.

"I would love to see those windmills out there," Zak says. "Because it would mean we were moving away from global warming and we were doing something progressive and something for the future generations."

Mandelstam, the wind entrepreneur, says the wind farm would be visible from Rehoboth Beach only on clear days.

"From this beach you'll see, just faintly on the horizon, half the size of your thumbnail, and thinner than a toothpick, a few little poles. And that's the wind farm. All 600 megawatts of it," Mandelstam says.

Up close, the wind farm would look a lot more impressive. Two hundred turbines would rise 40 stories above the ocean's surface. Their blades would churn slowly in the wind. On the average day, the project would power 130,000 homes, Mandelstam says.

Still, it's not clear whether the wind farm will win the Delaware competition.

For one thing, the state's largest utility says all the proposed power plants, including the wind farm, are too expensive. It says it would be cheaper to buy power from out of state.

"Our recommendation around these three bidders is to not accept any of them," says Gary Stockbridge, president of Delmarva Power. "We've evaluated them and found that they're all more costly than the market place."

Others say you can't depend on wind.

"It is an intermittent resource and so it's only going to provide electricity when the wind blows," says Caroline Angoorly, a vice president of NRG Energy, the company that wants to build the coal plant.

But Mandelstam says that on hot days, when electricity demand is highest, his project would provide power 85 percent of the time.

And because wind farms don't need fuel to operate, Mandelstam says he can promise customers something no other bidder can offer: predictable prices.

"There's no way they can possibly know the prices of natural gas or coal over the next 20 or 25 years — simply physically not possible. Therefore wind is the cheapest technology," Mandelstam says.

Climate change helped him make that claim. If, as expected, the government started to regulate greenhouse gases, using coal and gas would become even more expensive, Mandelstam says.

Earlier this week, Mandelstam's project got a boost. The staff of the Delaware Service Commission, one of the state agencies judging the competition, supported the idea of building a smaller offshore wind farm along with a gas plant.

The final decision is expected next week. But Mandelstam says he feels lucky.

"The decision makers who are here to protect the public's interest will pick a technology that is for the benefit of Delaware, and I believe that's offshore wind," he says.

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