Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is blowing into B'more Thursday to announce the Obama administration's latest move to boost development of industrial-scale wind energy projects off the mid-Atlantic coast. He'll be joined at the World Trade Center in the Inner Harbor by Gov.Martin O'Malley and Tommy P. Beaudreau, director of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Officials were mum, officially speaking, on the details of Salazar's announcement. A news advisory said only that the Interior secretary would declare a "major step" toward putting turbines on the Outer Continental Shelf off Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia.
Those who've been closely following the process, though, anticipate Salazar will declare that federal officials have finished their environmental assessment of potential problems with putting turbines along the four states' coasts and made a general finding of no significant impact (or FONSI, in bureacratese).
Wind advocates hope this and other moves by the administration will streamline the molasses-like federal leasing process, shaving up to a year, possibly more off the time it could take to get government approval to start building.
Salazar's announcement should open the door for Interior to seek bids for leasing specific sites offshore. The draft environmental assessment released last July had said there could be two areas off Maryland opened to lease, for instance, with other areas off limits because of potential conflicts with shipping lanes.
But the auction probably won't get under way for months yet, as Interior has yet to lay out how it's supposed to go. Salazar has said before he hopes to begin issuing leases by year's end. Eight different developers expressed interest a year ago in leasing spots off Maryland's coast.
Even so, that doesn't mean giant windmills will start appearing off Ocean City or anywhere else anytime soon. Under the "Smart from the Start" procedure Salazar laid out more than a year ago at another press conference in Baltimore, wind farm developers must survey each potential site for potential obstacles and draw up plans for putting in turbine foundations and other infrastructure. They'll also have to conduct a complete environmental impact study of each proposed project before the feds give any green lights for construction to begin.
And those are just the bureaucratic hoops offshore wind needs to jump through. Daunting financial (and political) hurdles remain, including competition from cheap natural gas. Despite polls commissioned by wind advocates showing public willingness to pay up to $2 a month more for electricity from offshore wind, some politicians are reluctant to vote government subsidies for such costly endeavors, likely to cost $1 billion or more.
In Washington, Congress has yet to extend key tax credits for offshore wind, which expire at the end of the year. And O'Malley's making his second try in Annapolis to get legislation providing financial incentives for putting turbines off Ocean City. The bill got panned in a recent Washington Post editorial, but the governor said Wednesday in his State of the State address to the General Assembly that he was looking forward to its passage this time.