Md.-based company leads Google-backed wind project

Transmission network would harvest electricity from wind farms off Mid-Atlantic coast

  • From left to right, are Dan Reicher and Rick Needham, both from Google, John Breckenridge, from Good Energies, Richard Straebel, from Marubeni Power, and Bob Mitchell, from Trans-Elect.
From left to right, are Dan Reicher and Rick Needham, both from… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais,…)
October 12, 2010|By Hanah Cho and Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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