After years of speculation, the offshore wind industry in the U.S. is finally taking off. While there was virtually no interest in leasing tracts of the outer continental shelf in 2015, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) leased nearly 390,000 acres off the coast of Massachusetts in December 2018. Moreover, prices skyrocketed, with a total of $405 million in high bids offered in the December auction.
This activity represents a commitment to implementing green energy as part of a balanced energy portfolio, and the excitement among developers, coastal states and regulators is palpable. BOEM, in particular, is encouraging dialogue to make the offshore wind market a success for all parties.
Changing Winds for NEPA Review
After years of following the process established by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) with various federal agencies, the regulated community can now work with BOEM to determine the most effective way to implement NEPA and conduct natural resource reviews.
A process that is effective for all parties involves balancing competing priorities. Regulators must be able to assess the maximum potential impact of any project, while developers want to retain as much flexibility as possible. The trick to meeting both goals is determining the optimal level of detail and scenarios required for inclusion in the Construction and Operation Plan (COP) for each proposed offshore wind facility.
Historically, under NEPA review, developers submitted detailed permit applications based on the current requirements of a given project, including the very specific proposed footprint and technologies to be deployed. This approach allowed regulators to calculate all potential impacts, and it has been successful for large-scale development projects in the past. However, it does not necessarily allow for modification of project technologies and the footprint of their impacts.
A New Approach
Because technologies in the offshore wind market are changing rapidly, it is imperative that developers maintain flexibility in their turbine sizes, numbers, locations and foundation types. BOEM is now offering an optional review process known as the Project Design Envelope (PDE) to address this need.
The PDE approach allows a developer to assess the worst-case scenario for each proposed design element on specific biological, physiological and socioeconomic resources. Each jurisdictional agency can then use this design scenario to evaluate the maximum potential impacts from project-related activities and define corresponding mitigation or monitoring measures.
If the COP is approved — or approved with modifications — the developer is required to submit additional reports that substantiate and detail the selection of final design components. These reports also are reviewed by a selected Certified Verification Agent (CVA) before fabrication and construction activities begin. The PDE approach allows for the possibility that developers will find ways to reduce potential impacts and costs before the project is constructed.
The Evolving COP
Today, developers are experimenting with the COP to determine how much detail BOEM will require and how much flexibility can be retained. Ongoing dialogue with BOEM throughout the review process can help reduce unanticipated requests from the agency and set expectations for all parties. Accordingly, everyone is anxiously watching the public dockets to see what is being filed and what BOEM will accept.
In this climate, every application sets new precedents for future projects. Understanding both the natural resources and the construction sides of the equation lets developers strike the right balance between granularity and flexibility. It also helps make sure each project design provides the best option for reducing impacts to natural resources, as well as the most constructable solution.
As the U.S. power industry begins to turn the country’s offshore wind potential into a reality, it will face the challenge of deciding how a large-scale generation and transmission system should be built.