One presidential administration late, U.S. offshore wind got its go-ahead when Secretary Salazar officially launched the federal Smart from the Start initiative, which is designed to streamline approvals and move U.S. offshore projects into construction and production by 2015-2016.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 established federal jurisdiction over offshore energy on the outer continental shelf (OCS) and called for rules and regulations to be established within 270 days of President George W. Bush signing the measure.

More than four years later, President Obama -- on Earth Day 2009 -- ordered that regulations be issued. A week later, they were adopted.

Based on its streamlining of the federal lands approval process for solar power plant development in the Southwest, the Department of the Interior (DOI) Smart from the Start initiative for offshore wind streamlines the regulatory process for OCS leases off the Atlantic Coast.

“It was a long time coming,” said Jim Lanard, President of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition. In predesignating Wind Energy Areas (WEAs), Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) could “save developers in the permitting process up to two years,” Lanard said. The WEAs are intended to eliminate conflicts with uses such as shipping channels, Department of Defense protected areas, Federal Aviation Administered radar zones, commercial fishing waters and recreational waterfronts, Lanard explained.

“They have a timeline,” he added. “They have 60 days to identify these Wind Energy Areas and then six months or so to get the federal and state agencies to weigh in on what the constraints might be for those areas. And there could be an environmental assessment process at the end of that, leading up to an offering of leases.”

Making new three-mile-by-three-mile lease areas available by late 2011 or early 2012 moves proposed offshore wind projects quickly into position to complete all regulatory hurdles within about four and a half years and to begin project construction by late 2015 or 2016, Lanard said. “Hopefully, the permitting process is still a work in progress,” he added, “and maybe we can cut that back a little more.”

In addition to the streamlined identification of new offshore sites, Smart from the Start provides for the “fast-tracking” of four already-granted offshore exploration sites and for the aggressive development, “on a parallel track,” of transmission lines.

Identifying the WEAs is expected to make the siting and building of needed transmission systems such as the Google-backed Atlantic Wind Connection much easier. “The department will consider new offshore transmission backbone as another part of energy delivery systems,” Lanard said, “and it won’t slow down other initiatives” by first-stage developers who will need to build their own transmission, but “if the Wind Energy Areas are similar to or compatible with what the offshore wind backbone is looking for, the department could find some useful synergies.”

Though presently an incipient and therefore more costly source of electricity generation than onshore winds, offshore winds, especially off the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic seaboards, are stronger, steadier and nearer to large population centers that already pay higher prices for electricity.

A 2008 study by the Department of Energy (DOE) found that to achieve the entirely feasible objective of providing twenty percent of the nation’s power by 2030, the U.S. wind energy industry would have to obtain 54 gigawatts from shallow offshore wind, which represents only a small portion of the 1,000 gigawatts of the wind energy potential DOI estimates is available off the Atlantic seaboard. 

Lanard said the Smart from the Start initiative assumes that projects consisting of 100 3.6 megawatt to 5 megawatt turbines, producing 360 to 500 megawatts at a cost of $1.5 billion to $2 billion. Getting from first foundations to full generation is expected to take two to three construction seasons.

The offshore wind industry in Europe has been building utility-scale offshore wind projects since 1991. In the last two years, Chinese developers have begun building ocean projects. “This could really get this industry up and running,” Lanard, an offshore developer himself from 2005 to 2010, said. “The offshore wind industry in the United States is open for business.”

Two small projects in state-regulated Atlantic waters off Rhode Island and New Jersey and one off Cleveland in Lake Erie are racing to become the first U.S. offshore producer. Massachusetts’ Cape Wind has finally cleared its regulatory hurdles and is on track to be the first U.S. offshore wind installation in federal waters. “They’re expecting to get financing early in 2011 and begin construction by the end of the year,” Lanard reported.

As construction in the offshore industry ramps up, there will be new needs for which Lanard said planning is already “well underway.” Developers and state economic directors from Maine to Virginia “are doing major assessments of supply chain capability.” They are also “assessing their ports and infrastructure needs.” Lanard said he thinks “the initial round of vessels for offshore wind are going to be modified jack-up vessels from the Gulf of Mexico. There are a lot of unused assets down there.”

For the workforce that will be necessary to erect and maintain the tens of thousands of turbines to be built off the Atlantic Coast in the next two decades, Lanard said Rhode Island offers a good example of preparations being made. “A grant has been obtained,” he said, “and workers in Rhode Island are going out to Midwestern wind farms and being trained in the air. For the operation and maintenance of wind farms, offshore or onshore, all the work above water is virtually identical.”