U.S. Will Auction Massive Tract for Offshore Wind Development

Illustration: iStockphoto

There are still no offshore wind farms in U.S. waters. That sentence is the backdrop to all the long-running machinations involved with getting an important industry off the ground, but it is clear that the government is doing what it can to change that seemingly static state of affairs. In the latest news, the Department of the Interior announced another auction of offshore real estate for wind development, significantly increasing the overall available area. This latest parcel is about the size of Rhode Island.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joined Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick on Tuesday to announce the impending auction of more than 3,000 square kilometers (742,000 acres). The area, which will be divided into four separate parcels, dwarfs the 920 square kilometers of U.S. water rights that had previously been auctioned off for this purpose. Those previous auctions raised more than $5 million, and as several offshore projects get closer and closer to construction one would imagine that the new auctions will generate significant interest as well.

Looking at the map of the new area might set off some alarm bells simply because Nantucket is in the picture, but it shouldn't raise any of the same problems as Cape Wind. That project will sit in the shoals between Nantucket and Cape Cod, a location that precipitated the inane viewshed arguments that have plagued it for almost 15 years now. The new area up for auction is south of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and by a significant enough distance to avoid issues related to ruining prized vistas.

So how big is 3000 square kilometers when it comes to wind development? The London Array, currently the world's biggest offshore wind farm at 630 megawatts (with the eventual goal of 1 gigawatt), sits on a 100-square-kilometer area. That means if companies managed to develop all of the new area (not likely, of course), there is at least a potential to install enough turbines to generate 18 000 megawatts. That's enough to power, say, Finland. Or Chile. Or Kazakhstan.

Of course, just putting the area up for auction says nothing about when we'll see turbines spinning in the water. That could still be somewhere between five and infinity years away. For now, though, there will be a 60-day public comment period during which companies must inform the Interior Department of an intention to participate in the auction. A sale will probably take place toward the end of the summer, after which the first stages of development could start moving ahead.

For years now, wind power proponents have been hoping that once that first farm makes it into the water, it will start a cascade of development for offshore wind. As we wait for that first domino to fall—maybe Cape Wind, maybe Block Island, maybe a dark horse—it's good to see that the government is helping to set up all the dominos that will follow it.

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