The steady, strong winds over the Atlantic off New England have attracted another developer interested in harnessing them for power generation. A new wrinkle in the proposal by Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company, of Washington state, is that the supports anchoring each wind turbine platform to the ocean floor would be designed in a way to turn wave action into electricity as well.
For Grays Harbor, this feature serves two purposes: It increases the likelihood that its platforms will be producing power even when winds are still, and it qualifies the initial stages of the project for review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission instead of the Minerals Management Service of the Department of the Interior.
Why one federal agency should have supervision over ocean wave energy and another over ocean wind energy is one of those governmental head-scratchers that turn organization charts into mazes. Congress should resolve the disparity as soon as possible. It should also facilitate all offshore energy projects by granting the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration increased funds for seabed surveys.
In the meantime, it is to Grays Harbor's advantage to be seeking a preliminary permit from FERC, which is considered more responsive than Minerals Management. Although the law giving Minerals Management authority over offshore wind projects passed in 2005, the agency is still drawing up regulations for awarding leases and overseeing projects. It can proceed with oversight of the Cape Wind project on Nantucket Sound because the 2005 law specifically grandfathered it.
If Grays Harbor gets its preliminary permit from FERC, it will be able to deploy a platform with a meteorological tower at its proposed site 12 to 17 miles south of Nantucket. This will provide the wind and wave data it needs to determine if the project is feasible. Another site being looked at is south of Block Island. Grays Harbor's CEO Burton Hamner likens his three-sided turbine platforms to a "big, triangular footstool." He acknowledges that they have yet to be tested in the rough conditions of the Atlantic in depths of up to 200 feet.
If Hamner can bring just one of his New England projects to fruition, it will make a substantial contribution to the energy grid. Each site could produce up to 1,000 megawatts, about the output of the Seabrook nuclear plant, and an average of 400.
While developers have installed many turbines in the US west, the nation lags behind Europe in exploiting stronger offshore winds. Getting regulations in place promptly and investing more in basic seabed research are two needed steps to encourage this form of renewable energy.