US gets serious about offshore wind

Offshore wind may soon take a cue from Oliver Twist and ask for more. Way more.

The U.S. Department of Energy is taking comments on a draft plan for developing offshore wind power and sponsoring seminars about creation of an offshore industry.

At this point, the industry is in its infancy with only one project, Cape Wind in Massachusetts, approved. About four others are close behind in the regulatory wings.

But the DOE's embrace is a big step for a neglected resource many believe has the potential to supply a serious percentage of this nation's electricity demand.

Officially dubbed "Creating an Offshore Wind Industry in the United States: A Strategic Work Plan," the 49-page draft was drawn up for DOE by its Wind and Water Power Program. The fact that a wind and water program even exists is a big deal.

There was a time when DOE meant nothing but nuclear. The agency traces its history back to the Manhattan project in 1942 (look for parallels to SyFy's "Eureka" this season) and was finally realized as DOE after President Carter made the switch from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1977. But I digress.

The draft spells out the hurdles -- high cost, technical challenges and connecting to the grid -- and objectives. Permitting is also a huge issue to navigate. How does a new technology get by regulators? Gives me a headache just thinking about the requirements the first projects will have to produce.

Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. will be one of the permit pioneers, 10 miles off the lake's coast near Cleveland. Officials with the organization are working closely with regulators and an experienced development team.

The draft offshore wind plan outlined some pretty significant goals. It establishes an initiative to "achieve a scenario of 54 gigawatts of deployed offshore wind generating capacity by 2030, at a cost of energy of 7-9 cents per kilowatt-hour."

That's huge. The interim target is 10 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020 at a much more modest cost of 13 cents kilowatt hour.

The initiative will seek to bolster technological development, remove market barriers and help create demonstration projects. The effort will "augment" about $100 million allocated to offshore wind research through stimulus funds, or the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

The plan says most offshore wind development is in Europe but points out that the United States has vast potential due to its significant coastlines. And it doesn't even specify Alaska -- talk about coastline. Heck, toss a cable across the Bering Sea and sell excess to Russia and China.

Europe's heavily subsidized program is about a decade old. Some 39 projects have been built with more than 2,000 megawatts of capacity. "The EU and the European Wind Energy Association have established aggressive targets to install 40 GW of offshore wind by 2020 and 150 GW by 2030," the plan said.

DOE looks as if its willing to assist. The agency has held a couple of recent seminars (one in Cleveland) and is actively working to get input on the draft plan and publicity for the issue.

It's not a Manhattan Project, but I'd like to hear Liam Neeson say, "Release the Kraken," and be referring to a flood of approved projects welcomed by coastal residents. Of course.