Heather Richards and Arianna Skibell, E&E News reporters
Published: Friday, October 30, 2020
In the new year, the first offshore wind farm in the United States will shut off its turbines, and its customers on nearby Block Island in Rhode Island will revert to diesel generation.
The rocky saeabed around Block Island has been worn away by tides and storms, sometimes exposing high-voltage cables in a popular swimming location that developers failed to bury deep enough when the facility was brought online in 2016. To splice in newly buried cables, the wind farm will go offline for a brief period this spring.
At $30 million for one leg of the fix and an undisclosed amount for the other, it’s a costly problem to crop up for the nation’s first offshore wind farm, and it’s not totally isolated.
High-voltage lines that will be buried at sea to carry power from the burgeoning offshore wind sector and inject it into the onshore grid represent the most complicated, and as yet uncertain, aspect of an industry poised to boom, experts say. From grid congestion to technical troubles, the offshore wind’s transmission challenge is the focus of growing attention as the industry advances.
“We cannot afford to develop the offshore grid in piecemeal,” Judy Chang, the undersecretary of energy for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission conference held on offshore’s transmission challenges Tuesday.
Block Island represents just 30 megawatts of power, a pilot project that preceded what could be a wind boom driven by state commitments to buy offshore wind and decarbonize power systems.
Northeastern states that have made offshore wind procurements include Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, with a total of 6,460 MW selected and a goal of 28,530 MW.
Additionally, New York, New Jersey and Virginia are in the process of procuring another 7,540 MW cumulatively.
“We need a solid plan to ensure our offshore and onshore can work together to support that vision,” Chang said.
But the overarching federal and state planning as voiced by Chang has been cautioned by others who are worried about constraining a nimble industry with regulations.
Others like WIRES Executive Director Larry Gasteiger say that rules and planning processes already exist that can accommodate the addition of offshore wind.
“The one outcome to avoid is any action, no matter how well-intentioned, that has the consequence of slowing down the development and integration of offshore wind resources,” he said at the FERC conference.
‘A bit of a disconnect’
The current coastal power and transmission system spreading densely in populated areas and sparsely across rural environs was not built with a large offshore wind industry in mind.
Regions of the coastline in the Northeast are supported with infrastructure to suit the population, not a fleet of offshore wind farms. A limited number of retired coastal power plants provide injection points for large power sources, but that’s not a comprehensive solution to avoid overloading and congesting the onshore grid system, said Brandon Burke, policy director for the Business Network for Offshore Wind.
“Right now, we have about 10 gigawatts of offshore wind project with off-take from state government, and we are already sitting and looking at this and saying, ‘How are we going to integrate this power into the onshore grid?'” he said.
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