Offshore wind farms gain watery foothold

A wind farm is expected to sprout from Lake Erie five to 10 miles offshore from Cleveland.

It'll start small at 20 megawatts or so. But the developer, nonprofit Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. has bigger plans, aiming for 1,000 megawatts over the next decade.

"We want Northern Ohio to be the epicenter of a new freshwater offshore wind power industry with associated manufacturing, shipping, and construction jobs," said Lorry Wagner, Lake Erie Energy Development Corp president, in a statement Tuesday about the naming of the project's development team. "Today's milestone will position our region as a model for innovation in clean energy and help spur economic development in Northern Ohio."

Construction is expected to start sometime in 2012.

Wagner's project treads groundbreaking territory. Should his team, which includes Bechtel and two other companies with big experience in wind and offshore development, succeed in navigating regulatory hurdles, their project would be one of a select few in the nation and a beacon to others.

The sight of wind turbines may have become common in many regions and people like former oil man T. Boone Pickens may have bought heavily into the concept. But that's on land. Offshore wind farms just don't happen in the United States.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by the nine-year controversy surrounding the Cape Wind project was approved in April by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Yet, the 130 turbines, which are scheduled to be installed off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. by 2012, remain politically sensitive.

Jim Motavelli in a story that appeared soon after the Cape Wind approval wrote on that the project was the first to be federally approved offshore.

The U.S. Department of Energy in its 2009 Wind Market Report said: "2,476 MW of offshore projects have advanced significantly in the permitting and development process. Of those projects, three have signed or proposed power purchase agreements with terms and details have been made public ... and a variety of other recent project and policy announcements demonstrate accelerated activity in the offshore wind energy sector."

Motavelli, a New York Times contributor and author, said DOE has reported the United States has the capacity to generate significantly more than 20 percent of its energy from wind.

Wagner's Lake Eerie project is one of the steps to realizing that potential. He said on the phone Tuesday that they're taking it slow and keeping the project small to start. He said Ohio regulators are working with his team -- Bechtel Development Co. Inc., Cavallo Great Lakes Ohio Wind LLC and Great Lakes Wind Energy LLC -- to craft a strategy for moving forward.

After all, while offshore natural gas development in the lake -- on the Canadian side -- is common, offshore wind power is a completely new concept and none of the environmental concerns has been addressed. Nor is there a specific process by which to address them.

Wagner said his development team was chosen for its talent and experience.

Indicators suggest more regional governments will be working to craft regulations for offshore wind power. The feds likely will have a lot more projects to review and include in their annual wind reports about offshore installations from here on out.

I'd like to see a couple of monster wind machines in Shelikof Strait in Alaska. I recall a trip in 1971 returning from Kodiak Island in my uncle's 50-foot fishing boat riding 30 or 40 foot seas and a relatively warm post-Christmas wind beating the heck out us. May as well harness that. With such resources -- and a long cable -- wind power could energize the Kenai Peninsula.