A New York-based company hopes to receive federal permits to build thousands of hulking steel and fiberglass wind turbines at several sites off the Atlantic shoreline, from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia to New England.
But plans for the non-polluting power source are running into opposition in many places from environmentalists, who contend the towers — each standing hundreds of feet above the water — will mar the natural beauty of the coastline and threaten fisheries, migratory birds and other resources.
Altogether, Winergy LLC is planning more than 2,000 turbines off the coasts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
The company spent a year-and-a-half identifying sites for possible offshore wind farms based on a set of criteria including water depth, nearby fishing activity and wind resources, then began filing pre-application notices for permits.
Pre-application notices allow a site to undergo a quick, preliminary overview from the Army Corps of Engineers to find out if there are any obvious reasons why the site should be off-limits to development.
“Basically, we’re nothing more than real estate developers,” said Robert Link, one of two principals who make up Winergy, which hopes to sell many of the permits it receives to power companies. “We’re dealing with the zoning of the ocean.”
Winergy says its expertise lies in maneuvering the federal permit process and not in energy production. Winergy is no stranger to the regulatory structure. Link said that he and his partner, company president Dennis Quaranta, earlier worked for 11 years to procure permission from the Corps for a fish farm in Long Island Sound’s Gardner Bay.
Permission was finally granted in 1997, and eventually the men moved on to other projects, including consulting for an energy company interested in acquiring permits for offshore wind development. “Then we realized we could do it ourselves,” Link said.
Their plans to build hundreds of offshore wind turbines might hold the potential to provide enough power for tens of thousands of homes. This would be a cleaner alternative to fossil fuel-burning power plants that generate huge amounts of pollution, including nitrogen oxides, which are a major source of nitrogen pollution in the Bay.
But some environmentalists — and lawmakers — are concerned about the lack of any standard federal oversight about where the turbines may go, and what types of impacts are acceptable.
“I’m committed to wind energy, but you wouldn’t put a wind farm in Yosemite Park,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York environmentalist group battling a wind farm project off Nantucket in Massachusetts.
The Corps does not have a consolidated office or uniform procedure for processing these permit requests, so its district offices will be handling individual application separately, as they see fit. Winergy expects to eventually deal with six Corps district offices in the Northeast region in filing pre-applications. The company filed its first with the Norfolk District in early November.
That site, called Porpoise Banks 2 by the company, would have included 271 turbines more than 350 feet tall spread over 57 square miles. Two nearby sites, Porpoise Banks 1 and 3, would have included 374 turbines scattered over 78 square miles.
The company dropped its plans for these three sites after being advised by the Corps the day before Thanksgiving that the waters were in military-sensitive waters. “Frankly, I’m relieved … and happy that we didn’t waste a lot of time and effort” pursuing these permits before finding out they were off-limits, Link said.
Winergy is holding onto plans to notify the Corps’ Norfolk District of its intent to file for a permit to erect 221 turbines near Smith Island, three miles off the Virginia coast.
The $900 million wind farm would cover 45 square miles in an area of ocean with an average depth of 60 feet. The turbines would either be placed atop platforms or slipped over long poles that would be driven into the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The base of each windmill would be 220 to 280 feet, and the wingspan of the turbine blades would be about 330 feet tip to tip.
Winergy also plans to notify the Corps’ Baltimore District office of its intent to file for a permit for 352 turbines at Isle of Wight, 3.5 miles from Maryland’s shores, and 506 turbines at Gulf Bank — the company’s largest proposed site — the same distance from Maryland.
Notification for 306 turbines off the Delaware coast, will be sent to the Corps’ Philadelphia District.
Neither the Baltimore nor Philadelphia offices have heard from Winergy, public information officers at each report.
When Winergy’s plans were announced, they were met with skepticism by some in the wind development industry. The company’s lack of expertise in energy issues was viewed as a critical flaw. What’s more, the company didn’t appear to have the connections within the wind development industry or the finances to deliver on its plans.
This view may now be changing. An established middle-market investment bank, Pierce Financial Corp. of Vienna, VA, believes it can recruit the funding necessary to power Winergy’s plans. The company also brings a track record of finding investors for energy ventures, according to John Clark, executive director of Pierce Financial.
Clark believes his company can recruit investors to Winergy because, “they’re pioneering a pretty bold project, and they have unique expertise.”
All technologically-oriented start-ups are challenging and raising funds for wind power is more difficult than for a conventional power plant, Clark said. “But the big, green solution could be offshore,” he said, referring to wind energy’s dearth of carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur and nitrogen emissions, which are byproducts of conventional power generation — and its potential economic payoff.
Clark also noted that society and politicians need to make up their minds now about offshore wind farms. “We still have nuclear power everywhere and if they find offshore oil, they'd slap a derrick over it overnight. There’s no reason not to move ahead with wind development.”
When Winergy hones its list of sites and begins filing for permits in earnest, the Corps’ district offices may employ a procedure similar to the New England District’s review of the proposal by Cape Wind Associates LLC to build a data collection tower and wind farm in Nantucket Sound.
Although construction on the 200-foot tall data tower has been approved and is under way, the Corps has not yet reached a decision on the wind farm itself. The proposal is undergoing a comprehensive environmental review ordered by the district engineer, who found it to be required under the National Environmental Policy Act and commonwealth statutes.
The review will examine the potential impacts of a wind farm on everything from shipwrecks to migratory birds to marine mammals and fish.
But critics have more extensive objections. They worry that the turbine farms could open coastal areas to more development. They are also concerned that allowing the wind farms sets a precedent for, in effect, allowing companies to privatize public land on the continental shelf.
Further, they argue, there are no regulatory standards for the construction of industrial projects in the territorial seas or on the continental shelf.
“We never thought we’d have to zone the ocean,” said Isaac Rosen, head of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a nonprofit group opposed to the construction of the Nantucket Sound Project.
The site was the first offshore wind farm proposed for U.S. waters. Key to the group’s opposition, Rosen said, is that “the federal regulatory process for siting offshore wind farms is wholly inadequate.”
The New England District expects a final environmental impact statement to be assembled in the coming weeks and a final decision on the wind farm to be made soon after.
Regardless of the Corps’ final decision on Cape Wind’s proposal, calls for change in the federal decision-making process on wind farm siting will continue. The Corps’ decision may even be invalidated by Congress in its coming session; a bill to consolidate the permitting of wind farms in the Department of the Interior was introduced last year but was unable to gather the necessary support.
Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly is the highest-ranking state-level official to call for reform. In letters sent to key federal officials and the attorneys general of all 22 coastal states in October, Reilly urged that a moratorium be enacted on all offshore wind farm projects until better federal regulations are in place to oversee their siting.
Reilly contended that the Corps does not have the legal jurisdiction for permitting offshore wind projects. He also pointed out the critical absence of requirements for lease payments and competitive bidding for wind farm projects, such as those required for the offshore drilling of oil and natural gas.
Reilly is not alone in his opposition. He has been joined by U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, whose district includes Cape Cod and other barrier islands. The current review process, which was established more than a half-century ago, according to Delahunt’s press secretary Steven Schwadon, “is more suited to extending your dock farther into the water than to reviewing massive offshore wind farms.”
In addition, several senior senators, including both John Kerry and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the current mechanism for review. Virginia’s John Warner went so far as to ask the Corps to delay its decision on the data tower in Nantucket Sound until lawmakers could examine the issue more closely.
His request was not heeded — the Corps announced it had approved the construction of the tower days later. In a letter to the Corps, Warner wrote that he opposed the permit being issued “without the benefit of public comment and [understanding of] the long-term impact on the natural resources of the area.