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Feds seek offshore wind developers in Mass. area

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / February 3, 2012
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BOSTON—Federal regulators on Friday said they're seeking offshore wind developers who want to build inside a newly redrawn zone of ocean off Massachusetts, which they pitched as a prime spot for wind farms.

Regulators had originally proposed opening up a larger area south of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. But after objections, including from commercial fishermen whose businesses would be affected by fields of turbines, they cut the area by more than half, to about 850,000 acres.

On Friday, they announced the redrawn boundaries in a press event inside a massive wind turbine test facility in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood.

Offshore wind is stalled in the U.S., which doesn't yet produce a watt of energy from it. But the hope Friday was the new wind energy zone off Massachusetts can be a catalyst for the local industry.

"We know the offshore revolution for wind is going to begin right here," said Barbara Kates-Garnick, the state's Energy Undersecretary.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is beginning an environmental review of the area, similar to one just completed in the mid-Atlantic states. It hopes that by next year, it can award interested developers exclusive rights to build inside different areas of the zone. That can help projects attract financing and ultimately speed up growth of a new offshore industry, said BOEM director Tommy Beaudreau.

Green energy officials have long talked about the potential in offshore wind, which blows strong enough off the Atlantic coast to power hundreds of millions of homes. But the wind is expensive to get at. Only one offshore project has won a federal lease, the Cape Wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound, and that took 10 years amid relentless opposition.

Friday's announcement is part of broad federal effort to streamline the approval process for offshore wind.

Beaudreau said the idea, drawn from some lessons learned after Cape Wind, is to deal with potential obstacles now, "so we don't run into problems down the road and disputes down the road that can really delay things."

"Hopefully, what comes out of that process is less dispute and less conflict," he said.

In 2010, regulators first proposed an area of Massachusetts for wind energy project. But they soon heard from fishermen who complained it encroached on their fishing grounds, as well as areas that had long been shut to them to protect various species.

It didn't seem right to shut fishermen out of an area for years, then allow massive turbines there, said former scalloper Jim Kendall, who was in a fishermen's working group the state convened to work out new boundaries for the zone.

Besides a fishermen's working group, the state consulted another key group -- people concerned about how wind farms would affect ocean habitat that's important to shellfish, whales and other sea life.

The whittled-down area announced Friday is a polygon about 54 miles across, located 13 miles south of Martha's Vineyard and 14 miles southwest of Nantucket.

Kendall said there's good fishing there for species such as squid, lobsters, scallops and bottom-dwelling groundfish, though it's not as busy as other places. He said he was hopeful about reparations for any lost catch.

"I think we all have to give and take on this clean energy business," Kendall said.

But he added he has doubts overall about whether any wind farms will actually be built there because they're so expensive. The relatively high cost of offshore wind power has been an issue for Cape Wind, which is trying to find financing and a buyer for half its power.

Beaudreau said he thinks improved planning can attract funding because it brings increased certainty to potential investors.

Sue Reid of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group that supports offshore wind, said every project can expect obstacles, but she expects the streamlined process will mean fewer of them, and help the industry finally take hold.

"You've never going to have something foolproof that's going to prevent something from happening," she said. But, she added, "These projects will be a lot more bulletproof."

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