On Nov. 5 the U.S. Department of the Interior issued the final programmatic environmental impact statement for the alternative energy and alternative use program for the U.S. outer continental shelf. The U.S. Minerals Management Service expects to issue a Record of Decision on the PEIS by the end of 2007.
Initiated as an outcome of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the alternative energy and alternative use program will establish a regulatory framework for the development of offshore alternative energies such as wind power, wave power, solar energy, energy from underwater currents and the generation of hydrogen. The program only encompasses federal waters and does not apply to state waters around the coastline.
“Offshore Alternative Energy is a new and highly anticipated frontier for the nation, as well as a new regulatory program for the Department of the Interior and the Minerals Management Service,” Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne said. “This is an important step in fostering a new industry offshore that will diversify our nation’s power supplies and open up new avenues to supply renewable energy to areas that may otherwise have limited options onshore.”
Kempthorne said that offshore wind turbine farms have the potential for the greatest immediate potential.
“Wind is the fastest growing source of electricity generation in the world,” Kempthorne said. “Northern Europe has 27 offshore wind farms producing estimated 900 megawatts of electrical generation. At present there are no offshore wind farms in the United States.”
Environmental impactsThe PEIS examines the potential environmental effects of alternative energy developments on the outer continental shelf over the next five to seven years and identifies policies and management practices for overseeing those developments. The document identifies issues and impact mitigation measures that need to be considered when reviewing specific offshore developments.
The environmental investigation has found that most of the environmental impacts would occur during the construction phase — significant air emissions or wastewater discharges are not anticipated during operation, Kempthorne said. But Kempthorne has established a wind turbines advisory committee to advise on measures to avoid or minimize impacts to wildlife from wind energy facilities.
And bearing in mind public concerns about the location of offshore facilities, offshore developments are excluded from areas such as marine national parks, wildlife refuges and national monuments.
MMS is in the process of preparing regulations for the alternative energy program. The service expects to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in spring 2008, with a final rule probably coming out at the end of 2008. Issuing of a final rule will then enable alternative energy lease sales to be held. But given the harsh sea and weather conditions offshore Alaska, MMS anticipates that, within the timeframe of the PEIS, any offshore Alaska alternative energy developments will occur in state waters rather than on the outer continental shelf, said MMS Director Randall Luthi.
Policy for near-term testingMeantime, MMS has established an interim policy for the testing of offshore alternative energy technologies, to enable companies to get a jumpstart on developing those technologies before the final rule is issued. After a 60-day public review period for the policy, the service will accept nominations for offshore research projects until the new alternative energy regulations come into effect.
“Through the scoping process for the EIS we found out there were many companies that really wanted to get out there now and find out what kind of information is there through the use of experimental (tests) and gathering data,” Luthi said. “… Companies can submit to us where they would like to put some kind of a tower or some other equipment, in order to get technological or other data regarding those (alternative energy) resources.”
Under the interim policy MMS may issue limited-term leases authorizing data collection and technology testing. And to assist in the nomination of projects, MMS is developing a web-based mapping viewer that will display features relevant to developments in specific areas of the continental shelf. The viewer will be operational in mid-November, MMS said.
Power for 50 million homesKempthorne said that mid-Atlantic region has 70 percent of U.S. wind potential in water depths less than 60 meters (180 feet).
“In the mid-Atlantic region this could be enough electricity to supply 50 million homes,” he said.
And harnessing even a small part of the potential wave energy of the ocean could provide enormous benefits.
“At only 15 percent utilization, U.S. offshore waters are estimated to contain wave energy potential of 30,000 megawatts, enough electricity to supply more than 22 million homes,” Kempthorne said.
Ocean currents can be harnessed using submerged turbines. Although the potential of this type of energy is not yet well understood, the greatest potential seems to lie off the east coast of Florida, Kempthorne said.
“It’s estimated that utilizing just one thousandth of available energy from the Gulf Stream would supply Florida with 35 percent of its electrical needs,” Kempthorne said.
“Our nation’s consumption of renewable energy resources is about 9 percent of our total energy consumption today, but it’s expected to grow more than 60 percent over the next 25 years,” Kempthorne said. “We believe offshore alternative energy can contribute significantly to this growth, providing a secure, clean, renewable source of energy for our nation.”