Google’s Atlantic Wind Connection: A Game changer for the Mid-Atlantic?

Posted on October 12, 2010. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Google blogged yesterday about its plan to fund the construction of an offshore wind transmission “backbone” in the waters off the East coast of the US from Virginia to New Jersey. The proposed  Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC) cable would stretch 350 miles with a price tag of $5 billion dollars (That’s more than Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth!) According to the New York Times,

“The system’s backbone cable, with a capacity of 6,000 megawatts, equal to the output of five large nuclear reactors, would run in shallow trenches on the seabed in federal waters 15 to 20 miles offshore, from northern New Jersey to Norfolk, Va. The notion would be to harvest energy from turbines in an area where the wind is strong but the hulking towers would barely be visible.”

The AWC has the potential to harness offshore wind energy at a lower cost than individual offshore wind farms by providing a common connection numerous projects. It can also alleviate some concerns about the visibility of wind turbines that plague the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, as the AWC would allow turbines to be situated far enough offshore to minimize the visual impact.

The project is also commended for its simplicity, as only four points of interconnection along the coast would be necessary to bring the electricity to shore. This is much easier than dealing with onshore transmission lines, which require numerous permits and run into NIMBY obstacles.

At the official announcement of the project at a press conference this morning, representatives from all of the companies  participating (Google, Trans-elect, Good Energies, and Marubeni) in financing the project expressed their enthusiasm and confidence in the venture. Google’s Dan Reicher & Robert Needham along with Good Energies’ John Breckenridge emphasized that this project was  a systematic and scalable approach to integrating renewables into electricity planning. All of the participants reiterated that this was a smart investment for grid reliability, and would help relieve transmission congestion issues. Even before wind turbines are installed, the AWC can transport low cost electricity from Virgnia, North to more densely populated regions bringing down electricity costs there. At the same time, the AWC will help Mid-Atlantic states meet medium-term RPS goals.

Mr. Reicher also said that Google was willing to play a significant role in the early stages of this project to help it overcome the regulatory hurdles as well as win support from stakeholders. Since this is an unprecendented undertaking, it is likely that there will be unforseen obstacles on the regulatory front.

That leads to the big question: WHEN is this great idea going to become a reality? There is no shortage of optimism surrounding the announcment, but the AWC cannot materialize overnight. Gaining regulatory approvals from federal authorities and the regional grid operator (PJM) will take time. The goal is to start construction in 2013, with the first phase going into operation by early 2016.  There are a lot of factors that will determine whether these goals are realistic. The regulatory approvals are one, but also the speed at which this project is developed will likely depend on the price of fossil fuel resources like natural gas, national carbon policy (a carbon tax or cap and trade plan would make this investment even more attractive), and buy-in from environmental groups and other stakeholders.

So far, environmental groups have been supportive of the project, with the Sierra Club calling it an “audacious idea” that could help break through the “logjam”.

Another interesting part of the picture is that the AWC announcement came shortly after the news that the proposed 3rd reactor at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland would likely not be financed at least in part because of the absence of a firm national climate change strategy.
Maryland groups are buzzing about offshore wind. Read the Clean Currents white paper on offshore wind for Maryland to learn more.

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