Offshore wind cable plan highlights grid bottleneck

A Google-backed transmission project secures initial funding to build a backbone to move offshore wind power up the East Coast using new transmission technology.

The 350-mile-long Atlantic Wind Connection backbone would be able to connect enough energy to power 1.9 million households. Independent transmission company Trans-Elect is running the project, and Google, Good Energies and Marubeni Corporation are financing it.
The 350-mile-long Atlantic Wind Connection backbone would be able to connect enough energy to power 1.9 million households. Independent transmission company Trans-Elect is running the project, and Google, Good Energies, and Marubeni Corporation are financing it. (Click to enlarge.) Google

Without a "backbone" to shuttle megawatts of power, the offshore wind resource on the U.S. Atlantic coast will remain undeveloped, according to one of the architects behind the Atlantic Wind Connection offshore transmission line project.

Trans-Elect Development today detailed an ambitious project to lay underwater cables to carry electricity generated by offshore wind turbines along the eastern seaboard from Virginia to New Jersey.

The group said that an initial group of investors, including Google and Good Energies, have put in tens of millions of dollars each into the project, which they hope to begin construction of in 2013. During a press conference today, executives said the capital just for procuring the equipment and engineering is on the order of $5 billion. The initial, three-year phase will require $1.8 billion.

If fully built, the 350-mile backbone could support 1,600 giant offshore wind turbines, which are larger than on-shore turbines, and generate enough to power 1.9 million homes, executives said. The group hopes to complete the network by 2020.

The plan calls for the use of direct current transmission lines and relatively new sea-based converter stations, which would act as a switch to direct hundreds of megawatts of power on and off the transmission cable, said Trans-Elect CEO Robert Mitchell.

This relatively new technology makes it easier for new projects to plug in as they come online, but the developers said that the engineering should not pose insurmountable challenges.

"This is not rocket science. We're going to lay a cable," Mitchell said. "The real technology factor that's never been done before is that fact that there will be multiple points going on and off (the backbone). That's not been done before."

If they don't build it, will they come?
Executives said they are confident that the transmission line will attract offshore wind farm developers because it addresses one of the most significant hurdles--and costs--to offshore wind. This project is starting off the coast of Delaware and New Jersey because offshore projects there are farthest along.

Without transmission lines, many large-scale renewable-energy projects get scuttled. T. Boone Pickens, for example, had to shelve plans for a giant wind farm in Texas in part because a lack of transmission lines.

A wind farm off the coast of Long Island would have required upgrading the terrestrial grid with costly and controversial transmission lines, Mitchell noted. "Once you got to shore, the upgrades would have cost $415 million and I don't know any wind farm can absorb that kind of cost," he said.

Approvals for the plan will require cooperation of both the federal and state governments, which include a barrage of permits and environmental impact studies. Mitchell noted that the Obama administration supports developing offshore wind on the East Coast, though Congress has not yet been able to pass energy and climate legislation favorable to clean-energy technologies this year.

Gaining initial investors to get the project off the ground is the most difficult part of financing the entire operation, Mitchell said. When the project is ready for construction, the group will rely on traditional project finance.

Regional transmission operator PJM, which serves the Mid-Atlantic states, will also play a key role in financing as it will need to assess the benefits, such as improving grid reliability, and get approval for paying for the infrastructure investment through ratepayers, executives said today.

Without a backbone transmission line, only a handful of offshore wind developers will be attracted to the Atlantic coast and ultimately those efforts will founder, Mitchell predicted. One of the advantages of an offshore cable is that it will allow turbines to be placed as much as 18 miles offshore, where they would not be viewable from shore.

"There will be no offshore wind industry in this country if we as a team are not successful in getting a backbone transmission line going," he said.

 

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