offshore wind farm
Nuon

What do you do when local opposition to an offshore wind farm project dries up, when the NIMBY crowd runs out of steam, when the federal government gives the green light and extends every permit and courtesy the law will allow, when the technology is tested and proven, and there’s nothing left to do but build it? Well, then you go looking for money — lots of it. After more than a decade of preparation, the Massachusetts wind energy company Cape Wind has done just that — and the results are looking promising.

A $2 billion agreement with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ penned last week catapults Cape Wind to a commanding lead in the race to be the first offshore wind project in the U.S. When complete, 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound will generate 468 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 100,000 to 200,000 households in the Cape Cod region, depending on the season. If the company can get construction started this year, Cape Wind’s clean power could begin turning on lights from Buzzards Bay to Provincetown by 2015.

While wind project developers like to play matters involving finances close to the vest, Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, an industry group, says the deal probably means the Bank of Tokyo is going to go out to find groups of investors or other banks to spread around the risks, the capital, and, presumably, the wealth. Although that leaves an additional $600 million that must be raised from other sources, according to the Cape Cod Times, it nevertheless provides a critical financial element to getting the wind farm underway.

Even if Cape Wind is the first offshore wind development in the United States, it will be No. 55 or 56 in the world. And not being an early adopter (just this once) might pay off for the U.S. During the 10 or more years Cape Wind spent navigating NIMBYs, lawsuits, and regulatory hurdles, the project’s planners have had the opportunity “to study all the experience of European offshore wind projects — what did they do right, what did they learn,” Lanard says. “We’ll see a more efficient project than what happened in Europe.”

In addition, Lanard says, years of watching Cape Wind’s courtroom dramas have probably taught future U.S. offshore developers to avoid the most obvious objections by planning their proposed wind farms just a bit further offshore, out of sight for beachfront homes and yacht captains.

The project does have some dedicated detractors. The Wampanoag Tribe of Cape Cod has voiced objections to the project based on its cultural reverence for unobstructed seaside vistas, but the tribe’s objections have not met success in court. Other groups and individuals have sworn to oppose Cape Wind to the end, citing concerns ranging from rate structures to the possibility that marine animals might be disturbed during construction. But with EPA approval, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits in hand, and now the funding deal, the developers seem poised to move ahead.

The offshore winds in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, which blow not far from major urban centers, create the perfect conditions for more development like this, says Fara Courtney, executive director of the U.S. Offshore Wind Collaborative, a nonpartisan group interested in the public benefits of offshore wind. Cape Wind’s proposed 3.6-megawatt turbines, with blades half the length of a football field on towers soaring 300 feet (plus a 60-foot base underwater), provide double the energy production capacity of land-based wind turbines.

Lanard says he knows of offshore wind developers who have already committed to even larger, six-megawatt turbines. Arranged in clusters of 70 towers or more (typical utility-scale, land-based wind farms range from 25 to 50 towers), offshore wind farms could fuel the energy needs of the entire East Coast.

The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal for the nation to produce 54 gigawatts from offshore wind by 2030 — enough electricity to power more than 10 cities the size of New York. Courtney says if the resource were fully harnessed, wind farms off the coasts could theoretically produce 900 gigawatts of electricity, more than enough to power the entire U.S.

Offshore wind prospects in Maryland received a boost recently with the approval of a $1.7 billion subsidy for wind-farm development financed by a $1.50 add-on to ratepayer bills statewide. Wind farms are also proposed for the waters off of Delaware, Rhode Island, and in the Gulf of Mexico, among other places.

With utility-scale, grid-connected offshore wind projects costing $2 billion a pop, and with the large number of “contingencies” involved, Lanard says it’s not a complete shock that a foreign investment firm would be pioneering the first offshore wind project in the U.S. “The Bank of Tokyo is highly respected,” he says, and its association with the Mitsubishi trading company, which has more than tested the waters of offshore wind technology, “might provide an added bonus” when seeking additional investors.

Lanard says individual financiers are still hesitant to jump into these projects with both feet. Europe has responded with a renewable energy investment consortium concept led by companies like Green Giraffe that help attract private funds to the ever-expanding list of wind energy projects off its coasts.

In the U.S., wind energy recently got a boost when Congress renewed the Wind Energy Production Tax Credit until Dec. 31, 2013. Experts say renewable energy costs are now significantly lower in contract price than energy produced by new fuel-burning power plants of any type, including natural gas.

Lanard says the tax credits have helped and “they need to continue.” But the farms can provide benefits beyond just power. Far from being the fabled eyesores bandied about in court cases, Lanard predicts wind farms will become popular tourist attractions. Mother Nature seems to agree that wind turbines can provide beneficial habitat for marine life, as this video from a Netherlands offshore wind project hints.

Even with the money, however, the job won’t be simple. Marine environments are challenging to work in for obvious reasons, and there are other concerns that will demand special care during installation. For example, ships and construction crews will need to employ licensed whale spotters authorized to call a halt to activity when endangered species such as right whales appear in the vicinity.

Still, Lanard speculates that over the next 12 months, U.S. bankers will be keeping a close eye on happenings off Nantucket. And as for those locals who fought the project for so long? Witnessing the energy future take shape over the past couple of weeks has inspired me to take up the quill pen and style some old-school verse.

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who used energy up by the bucket
A wind farm comes in
And cleans up the sin
He can now burn his lights and say “F*#K IT!”