By LAURA L. THORNTON
WASHINGTON (October 13, 2010)Developers unveiled a $5 billion undersea transmission cable project Tuesday that could link a Maryland wind farm planned off the Worchester County coast to the mainland electric grid upon completion in 2020.
The new 350-mile cable will be a "superhighway ... to stimulate development that would otherwise not be possible," said Robert Mitchell, chief executive officer of Trans-Elect, the private, Maryland-based company that plans to build the cable.
The cable will stretch from northern New Jersey to southern Virginia, and will run under the ocean floor approximately 17 miles off the coastline, Mitchell said. It could be used by any wind energy projects to be developed in the area.
Four extensions—"on-ramps for wind energy," said Markian Melnyk, a renewable energy adviser for the project—will connect the big cable to the mainland grid. None of the extensions will connect directly to Maryland.
When finished, the cable will have the capacity to bring 6,000 megawatts of energy—enough to power 1.9 million homes, according to a press release—from as-yet unbuilt offshore wind farms to the mainland.
"If the project had been in place in 2003," Mitchell said, the blackout that shut down lights, air conditioning and electric trains across the Northeast for up to two days would have been over in just a few hours.
"The grid would not only be cleaner, but more secure and more reliable," Melnyk said.
The cable, which will be financed in large part by the online search giant Google and Good Energies, a renewable energy investment firm, will be of particular benefit to Maryland, where a wind farm off the coast of Worchester County is in the initial planning stages. While the transmission line is not necessary for the wind farm, "the difference here is that this would be an incredibly long grid ... so you could connect a number of wind farms to... (the) line, and then just have four points where the line would come ashore," said Tom Carlson, Maryland campaign director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which has been active in promoting the wind farm.
"The idea behind it," said Matt Fleming, director of the Chesapeake Coastal Program of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is "that the backbone (cable) will remove the need for individual (transmission lines), so that in theory you're reducing the number of impacts"—individual cables coming into the shore line.
And with the transmission line in place, the Maryland wind farm could be completed more quickly—in perhaps five years instead of seven, Carlson said.
The time lag involved in building wind farms and underwater transmission cables is due to the lengthy permitting process, he added.
No contracts have been signed yet to build the towering wind turbines planned for the Maryland wind farm, but NRG Bluewater Wind, one of the nation's leading developers of offshore wind energy projects, has already emerged as a possible contender in the bidding process, Carlson said. According to NRG Bluewater Wind's website the Maryland development could generate 600 MW of electricity and power up to 136,000 homes per year.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, favors wind farms.
"In general, Senator Cardin supports the construction of the needed infrastructure to support the production of clean, offshore wind energy," said Sue Walitsky, national communications director for the senator's office.
Both the transmission line and wind farm projects face long federal and state permitting processes.
City officials in Ocean City, one of Worchester county's most popular seaside resort towns, are also in favor of harnessing the power of the ocean's breezes.
"The consensus from the mayor and council is that, provided the wind farms are located at least 10 miles offshore, we would not actively oppose them," said Terry McGean, a city engineer.
NRG Bluewater Wind's proposal places its turbines 12 miles offshore.
"Quite a few people like the idea of renewable energy, and there's a lot of plusses to it."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.