Md.-based company leads Google-backed wind project

A Maryland company proposed Tuesday a $5 billion transmission network that would harvest electricity from wind farms along the Atlantic Seaboard — a project designed to increase green energy sources and improve the reliability of the region's taxed electricity grid.

Chevy Chase-based Trans-Elect Development Co. has the backing of some well-known investors, including Google Inc., which will buy a 37.5 percent stake in the development stage of the Atlantic Wind Connection project.

"We have a private sector company and some investors who are making a commitment to really make a major impact on energy," Trans-Elect chief executive Bob Mitchell said in an interview.

The 350-mile underwater network, running from New Jersey to Virginia and connecting to land at four points, would tie into the electricity grid that serves 13 states and Washington, D.C. The system will be able to connect 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind, which could power 1.9 million households.

The transmission network is likely to spur the development of wind farms, including one planned off the coast of Ocean City, which could produce 1 gigawatt of electricity, according to the Maryland Energy Administration. Agency spokesman Ian Hines said the network would make offshore wind farms more affordable.

Hines compared the transmission line to a power strip that homeowners would use to connect many appliances. Instead of each wind farm sending electricity back to shore, "you've got a big power strip, a 350-mile power strip that these wind farms can plug right into, and that will direct the energy right onto the land. The point is that if there are four places where that energy is coming onto the land rather than 14, that makes it much more cost-effective for everybody."

It should also make wind-generated power steadier and more reliable, according to Willett Kempton, a professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware who has proposed an even larger offshore grid running from Maine to Florida.

As storms move up the coast, he said, they would spin the turbines "full blast" off Virginia first, then move north to turn the turbines off Maryland and Delaware, and eventually New Jersey. Power production at each farm would rise and fall with the storms' passage, but production from the interconnected system would remain much more steady.

"We looked at five years of wind data, and the power never stopped,' he said. And steadier power from renewable sources means the industry can displace more fossil fuel combustion and cut more carbon dioxide emissions, Kempton said.

The network and Google's involvement will help spur the wind energy industry in the U.S., which has lagged behind China in installing turbines, said Charlie Hodges, a wind industry analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London. Wind power investment may reach $202 billion within two decades, according to estimates at industry group Global Wind Energy Council.

"The North American wind industry hasn't had any players involved with the motivation and financial heft to really move this market forward," Hodges said. "Google could play that role."

Besides the creation of renewable energy, the project is expected to help ease congestion on the Mid-Atlantic grid as energy needs grow. A number of high-voltage power line projects are in various stages of development to bring electricity to the region, but they have been met with resistance from environmentalists and residents.

"It can never hurt to have an additional transmission line in one of the most congested corridors in the United States," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Trans-Elect.

Energy from the wind-backed transmission will be brought onshore at four connection points in northern and southern New Jersey, Delaware and southern Virginia. That would limit negotiations with property owners, a time-consuming and costly issue associated with building land-based lines.

Matt Fleming, director of the Chesapeake and Coastal Program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the Trans-Elect plan to have just four cables bringing power ashore "will remove the need to have to develop cable connections to individual projects. … Our view on this is that it would help reduce multiple impacts from individual lines." It would also simplify the state and federal permitting process.

The DNR has been working with the Maryland Energy Administration and offshore stakeholders to develop an online "Coastal Atlas" identifying areas, such as prime fishing areas and cold-water corals where conflicts might arise from wind development.

The governor's office is also working with other governors in the region through the Offshore Wind Consortium, and with federal agencies to coordinate wind power policy, he said.

Andy Barth, spokesman for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gubernatorial campaign, said the former governor "fully supports a diverse portfolio of clean, reliable, and affordable energy. He looks forward to studying this proposal with an eye towards its economic and environmental impact."

Noting Constellation Energy's recent decision not to build a third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs, Barth said, "Maryland is currently struggling to diversify its energy portfolio. It is vital that Maryland's governor do a better job securing new energy projects and the jobs that come with it."

Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a grassroots organization, said the willingness of big investors to risk hundreds of millions or billions of dollars on this project "legitimizes the clean energy agenda that many environmental groups and others in Maryland have been saying was coming for quite a while. Now it looks like it's almost here, on a large scale."

Now, while Maryland "clearly has been a leader among Mid-Atlantic states in terms of promoting renewable electricity standards," he said, "we haven't been a leader yet on offshore wind." Maryland is now lagging behind states such as Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

"The states that go first are going to attract the supply lines, attract the manufacturing, the installation jobs and supply the parts," Tidwell said. "Maryland needs to catch up."

He added, "The good news is there are lots of indications from the Maryland Energy Administration, the Department of the Environment, the governor's office and the House majority leader and others that this is going to be a top priority in 2011."

Google and Good Energies, an investor in renewable-energy projects, agreed to each buy 37.5 percent of the equity portion of the project. Japan's Marubeni Corp. will own a 15 percent stake and a group led by Trans-Elect will own the remaining 10 percent, said Mitchell.

Construction on the first phase of the project is expected to begin in early 2013.

Mitchell said the first phase will run 150 miles in federal waters from New Jersey to Delaware and will be complete by early 2016. It would be capable of delivering 2,000 megawatts of wind energy.

Hines, of the Maryland Energy Administration, said that while the state agency had not been involved with this specific proposal, it has worked with Trans-Elect in the past year and a half to encourage the federal government to consider state priorities when deciding energy regulations.

Trans-Elect is expected to file its proposal application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission later this year. The project also needs regulatory approval from the Department of Interior as well as from various states; Maryland is not one of them.

PJM Interconnection, the regional grid operator, also needs to approve the project. Spokeswoman Paula DuPont-Kidd said PJM would study the impact of the proposed transmission line on its system and reliability.

Trans-Elect, formed in 1999, owns and manages more than 12,600 miles of transmission lines in North America, according to its website. Over the years, the company expanded its business to develop and build new transmission projects. The Atlantic Wind Connection project is Trans-Elect's first off-shore venture.

In 2004, Trans-Elect partnered with Pacific Gas and Electric and the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration to build a $250 million power line in California to address transmission deficiencies that contributed to the rolling blackouts a few years earlier.

Google made its first direct investment in clean energy in May, buying a $38.8 million stake in two North Dakota wind farms.

"We believe in investing in projects that make good business sense and further the development of renewable energy," Rick Needham, Google's director of green business operations, wrote in a blog post Monday. "We're willing to take calculated risks on early stage ideas and projects that can have dramatic impacts while offering attractive returns."

Google has also been trying to rely on renewable energy sources for its data centers, whose demands for power are increasing as the company sets up more computers in its bid to index all of the world's online data.

Sun reporter Yeganeh June Torbati and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

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