The federal government has launched a study that could shave up to two years off the timeframe for developing wind farms off the coast of New Jersey.
The U.S. Department of Interior is seeking comment on a draft Environmental Assessment to consider potential environmental and economic effects of issuing renewable energy leases in designated Wind Energy Areas off New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
The announcement was hailed by advocates of offshore wind who have long complained the current extensive permitting time, projected to run between seven and nine years, is one of the biggest impediments to developing a cleaner source of electricity to serve the Eastern Seaboard.
Under the new process, if the environmental assessment is approved, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) can issue a Finding of No Significant Impact, a determination that would eliminate the need to do a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement.
If that occurs, "then it’s likely that two years can be taken off the current seven-to-nine permitting timeline," said Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing offshore wind developers.
The draft assessment is part of an initiative launched by the federal agency to expedite development of offshore wind farms off the Atlantic seaboard. The agency previously issued notices of interest, seeking input from developers to lease blocks of offshore waters for wind farms. New Jersey elicited the most interest with 11 developers expressing interest in building wind turbines off its coast, with some of the same developers saying they also are interested in building farms off the other states.
The Christie administration is strongly pushing offshore wind farms, having signed a bill that would help developers finance their projects by offering offshore renewable energy credits (ORECS) for the electricity they produce under long-term contracts. The administration hopes it will attract segments of the offshore wind manufacturing industry to the state to create well-paying blue collar jobs.
The federal agency said its assessment will help identify areas offshore that are best suited for wind development, while also reducing the potential for costly delays and red tape.
"If leases are issued in these geographic areas, we will conduct a thorough environmental analysis of each proposed commercial project," said Michael Bromwich, director of BOEMRE. "We will continue to work with our state renewable energy task forces to advance renewable energy development carefully and responsibly."
Offshore wind developers applauded the move. "It's a good step in the right direction," said Michael Jennings, a spokesman for PSEG Global, a partner in a joint venture with Garden State Offshore Wind to build a farm off the coast of New Jersey. "It will advance the timeline and shorten the process."
The draft assessment considers potential environmental impacts associated with site characterization of potential lease areas and the impact of installation and operation of meteorological towers or buoys on leases that may be issued.
The biggest impact identified in the draft is increased vessel traffic and its impact on various marine and mammal species, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale, one of the most threatened whales in the world. In New Jersey, it is projected the site assessment activities will result in an additional 1,200 vessel trips each year just with activities associated with installation of the meteorological towers and buoys, the draft said.
The agency anticipates a total of 13 leases under the proposed action, including seven offshore New Jersey, far more than any other state. Maryland is projected to have two leases, three in Virginia and one off Delaware, according to the draft environmental assessment.
New Jersey may have a step up on other states in moving forward with offshore wind development, according to the assessment. Off the Jersey coast, the assessment noted its Wind Energy Area was developed using New Jersey’s ecological baseline studies as a base. That study concluded the impact of offshore wind farms declined the farther the turbines were sited offshore. It also noted that some areas of the proposed lease area off the Jersey coast may already have sufficient information available to assess the effect on birds and marine life, citing the ecological study done by the state.
In New Jersey, the Wind Energy Area begins about seven nautical miles off the coast and extends 23 nautical miles offshore, ranging 53 nautical miles from Seaside Park to Hereford Inlet.