Eight companies vie to put wind turbines in offshore wind farm in Maryland

Eight companies, including one with Maryland ties, have indicated their interest in developing wind energy projects off the state’s coast.

State and industry officials hailed what they called a "robust" response to the federal government’s call for developers to indicate whether they want to try generating electricity from wind turbines placed in the Atlantic 12 miles or more from Ocean City.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement had invited potential wind power developers in November to express their interest in leasing sites in a 207 nautical-square-mile area off the state’s 31-mile coastline. The deadline for responding was Monday.

"The federal process has confirmed that there is robust, competitive private sector interest in developing Maryland’s outstanding offshore wind resources," Maryland Energy Director Malcolm D. Woolf said in a statement. "We are confident that the competitive leasing process will result in one or more Maryland offshore wind farms, which will create thousands of jobs and generate much-needed clean electricity for our region."

Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, an industry group, said the submission of nine separate wind farm proposals from eight companies "shows the maturing of the offshore wind industry here in the United States." Developers working on offshore projects in neighboring states voiced formal interest in Maryland waters, he noted, but some of the bidders have not previously been involved in such projects, at least in the United States.

One of the relative newcomers is Maryland Offshore LLC, which has local ties and an executive who’s a friend and former top aide of Gov. Martin O’Malley. The venture is a partnership between Beowulf Energy LLC, an energy and infrastructure firm based in Easton, and Apex Wind Energy, based in Charlottesville, Va.

Michael R. Enright, who had been the governor’s chief of staff and then senior adviser until a year ago, is managing director at Beowulf. Enright could not be reached for comment, but state and industry officials noted that the federal government controls how offshore wind leases are awarded, with very little state say.

Among the other companies voicing interest in Maryland is an affiliate of NRG Bluewater Wind, which has proposed erecting 450 megawatts’ worth of electrical generation off Rehoboth Beach, Del. Bluewater has made clear for some time its interest in placing more turbines along Maryland’s coast.

Other bidders include: Energy Management Inc., developer of Cape Wind in Massachusetts, the first offshore wind farm project to gain federal approval last year; Fishermen’s Energy of New Jersey, which is bidding to place wind turbines in state waters as well as off New Jersey’s coast; and Seawind Renewable Energy Corp., which has proposed a wind farm off Virginia’s coast.

Apex Wind Energy, the partner in Maryland Offshore, also has requested leases off Virginia and North Carolina, according to Karlis Povisils, the firm’s development manager.

Since it appears at least a few companies have expressed interest in the same sites, federal officials are expected to request more detailed proposals from the competitors and ultimately may put the disputed lease blocks up for auction.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has vowed to streamline the environmental and other regulatory reviews of offshore leases, a process that has been taking seven to nine years.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said during a visit to Baltimore in November that he hopes his department would be ready to award more wind leases by the end of this year or in early 2012. Once a project gets a lease, though, it still would have to pass a lengthy environmental impact study.

The O’Malley administration has pushed to develop offshore wind power as the main way to achieve the state’s goal of getting 20 percent of Maryland’s electricity needs from renewable power by 2022.

O’Malley, who has also promoted the job-creation potential of offshore wind power, said this week that he would seek legislation requiring utilities to sign long-term contracts with offshore wind farm developers. Industry officials say financing is a major hurdle for projects that can cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion, and having a guaranteed market for the electricity should help attract investors.

Lanard, the industry group executive, said that the interest being shown in developing wind projects off Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic coast seems to have grown large enough to prompt turbine manufacturers now based in Europe and Asia to build plants in the region.

By Timothy B. Wheeler, www.baltimoresun.com