Prospects For Offshore Wind In The Aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Joel Eisen, Professor of Law, University of Richmond School of Law

By Katherine Barbiere

Joel Eisen, the final speaker of the symposium, closed the weekend with his presentation on the potentials and associated costs and benefits of implementing offshore wind development in America.  America has the real and pressing need to reexamine and eventually reorganize our energy source.  As the oil supply dwindles, lawmakers need to focus on moving away from fossil fuels and moving more toward renewable energy sources.  Especially after Deepwater Horizon, which served to further highlight the many deficits of working with oil, the benefits of working with alternative energy sources became very much worth the cost.

Offshore wind has the capacity and potential to displace energy.  More than three-fourths of the nation’s electricity comes from the coastal states.  And as the technology becomes cheaper, the implementation of offshore wind turbines becomes more of a reality.  In Europe, for example, there are a considerable amount of offshore wind  developments currently underway.  China, however, is emerging as the new leader in offshore wind developments and has been working diligently to continue to establish a presence in that technological resource.

Presently, the United States has no offshore wind turbines currently operating in America’s waters.  Mr. Eisen enumerated several reasons for this current lack of offshore wind turbines and relative unpopularity of the concept.  The first proposed reason was the expense of offshore projects.  This is largely due to exchange rates as well as to complications with offshore technology.  This problem will be remedied through future research and a better understanding of how to make offshore projects more economically efficient.  An investment now will pay for itself as wind becomes more usably harnessed.

Secondly, Mr. Eisen cited the environmental issues associated with offshore wind projects.  Some such issues include the impact on marine animals, potential for oil leakage, noise, and finally aesthetics.  Residents of large beach-front properties complain of a marred view due to the presence of large turbines.  Additionally there are maintenance and regulatory issues.

There is also the concern as to who will pay for the electricity.  Nominally, from the start, offshore wind is more expensive than what is currently being paid.  Therefore, to be effective offshore wind development will require forward thinking companies to engage in an agreement to purchase the power for a long period of time.  This issue is still under debate as companies and legislators determine who is best suited to undertake this cost.

Finally, Mr. Eisen discussed the difficulties associated with jurisdiction.  As they now stand, wind turbines fall under both state and federal agencies.  There are issues with applying for and receiving both state and  federal permits as well as a dozen other regulatory problems associated with both state and federal law.  Developers are now attempting to negotiate multistate agreements in order to facilitate some of the hassles associated with this jurisdictional split.

Despite these concerns, however, there have been several attempts made to experiment with offshore wind.  Nantucket Sound is ideally suited for offshore wind and development began under the project heading “Cape Wind.”  This project is considerably larger than the Chinese project and would be considered a major technological advancement in the field.  Right from the start, however, there was ferocious opposition from the project–stemming from local, state and federal authorities in addition to public opposition.  In theory, there has been legislation that would allow the project to move forward, however, the associates of Cape Wind are still facing public opposition.  Recently, groups attempted to thwart the project under the Historic Preservation Act.  Associates of Cape Wind still remain dedicated to the project.

Mr. Eisen concluded his discussion of offshore wind by enumerating several reasons this topic is ripe for debate.  First, the environmental issues associated with our current energy plan and the need to implement a successor before it is too late.  Secondly, the technology associated with offshore wind looks to be the same as that associated with offshore drilling.  Therefore, we simply need to continue what is an already established technological path.  And the same can be said of the regulatory structure as well.  Offshore wind is going to have a huge impact on our electrical supply and therefore it is necessary that it is regarded and explored with increasing dedication.

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