BlueWater Wind aimed to start project in Spring

Representatives of BlueWater Wind offered an update on the company’s planned wind farm project off the coast of Rehoboth Beach at the meeting of the Sussex County Council on Dec. 9 and gave some answers to questions council members had about the project.

As things currently stand, the company is anticipating receiving approval for the construction of a meteorological tower in the project area sometime in spring 2009, with plans to begin construction of the tower as soon as approval is received.

BlueWater Wind officials said Tuesday that the tower would be a first step in building the wind farm and will serve as a base from which they can study the geological and wind conditions they will be dealing with when building the actual turbines for the wind farm.

The meteorological tower – as with the wind turbines and their towers – is planned to be assembled on land near the wind farm site. BWW representatives said the company is currently looking at several locations along the coast as potential sites for the assembly location.

Once that location has been picked and the tower assembled, the process will mirror the future process for installation of the wind turbine towers, using a special installation vessel that will vibrate the towers’ foundations to below the sea floor.

Plans also call for the location of an operations and maintenance port in Sussex County. Again, the company is currently looking at several locations in an effort to determine the final location of that facility.

Once it is in place, the port will be used to dispatch crews for daily maintenance operations on the wind park. Between 40 and 60 people will be employed at the facility, along with four large crew boats. The facility will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition to the daily maintenance and operations at that location, the port facility is also to serve as a training center for wind farm personnel, as well as a visitors’ center where everyone from schoolchildren to international visitors looking to see an offshore wind farm in operation can go for a peek.

Council members on Tuesday expressed some surprise at the company’s reference to the 25-year lifespan of the towers in the project.

Representatives noted during their presentation that the towers must be decommissioned after 25 years, with their foundations then either to be removed to a level below the sand or, if an environmental benefit is found in the installation (such as creation of an artificial reef as habitat for fish, etc.), to have a portion of the tower deemed safe for navigation left behind as habitat.

Council members questioned the necessity of removing the towers at 25 years, versus making ongoing maintenance and upgrades to continue the wind farm’s life expectancy beyond that quarter century. But BlueWater Wind representatives pointed to expected obsolescence of current technology by that time.

“There’s a 20- to 25-year useful life for a wind park,” they said. “You end up with higher and higher maintenance costs. It seems like you could simply replace the turbine because the towers have a much longer life than 25 years, but the towers are designed specifically for these turbines.

“To swap it out might be akin to putting bicycle tires on your car,” they explained. “It has to be exactly the same kind of equipment because of stresses on the tower.

“Who knows? Twenty-five years from now, the technology might be such that it doesn’t make sense to keep them in place,” they offered, noting that design for such a facility 25 years in the future might call for 5 megawatt turbines instead of the planned 3 megawatt turbines – resulting in more power from fewer towers.

In addition to the possible loss of the offshore wind farm in 25 years, council members on Tuesday expressed concerns about how the company would leave the site once its usefulness had dwindled.

“Could we be stuck with a bunch of skeletons out there?” asked Councilman George Cole (R-District 4, Bethany Beach).

BlueWater Wind’s representatives said that was not a risk, as the company must put up a bond for full removal costs of the wind park before construction even begins.

Councilman Vance Phillips (R-District 5, Laurel) asked for information regarding a rumor he’d heard. “Is it true that your parent company was delisted from the Australian stock market?”

BlueWater Wind representatives said that rumor was not true, even if Babcock and Brown has been subject to the same economic troubles that have plagued the worldwide economy.

“We haven’t been immune to the downturns,” they admitted. “Our stock has gotten beaten up. We are selling some of our assets around Europe, but the North American wind-farm projects – 20 owned by Babcock and Brown, and five more to be opened before the end of year – are the crown jewels of Babcock and Brown.”

They further said that the head of the company had committed just last week to ensuring the Rehoboth Beach project will be built.

Council President Finley Jones (D-District 2, Greenwood) expressed further concern about that 25-year life of the project.

“Twenty-five years from now, are you going to just pack up and go?” he asked.

“I don’t know what the future will hold. … We’ll continue to be in the wind business as long as it’s viable,” the company’s representatives assured him, noting that there is an increasing trend toward land-based wind farms. “But we’re still a small percentage of the nation’s total energy makeup. There’s plenty of room for growth.”

Jones said he was also concerned that the eventual customers for the project’s wind-produced power – Delmarva Power and Light customers – would be footing the bill for the wind park’s construction, only to have that investment simply go away after 25 years.

“We’re footing the bill as DPL customers,” he said. “It’s strange you would walk away after 25 years.”

But BlueWater Wind officials noted that DPL customers will be paying only for energy they will use, not for construction of the wind farm.

“BlueWater Wind has to find all the money up front to build this project,” they said. “Not one nickel of state money or taxpayer dollars will be paying for construction.”

That tab for construction is expected to run about $800 million, while larger projects can cost $1.5 million or more to build.

“I agreed that it’s cheaper to build on land. It costs as much as 50 percent more to build off the coast,” they said. “But offshore wind resources are more consistent and stronger, and that’s what makes up the cost difference.”

The council on Tuesday also expressed concern about how much the county and state can look forward to in terms of future economic development related to the wind farm. With offshore wind being a hot topic along the East Coast, might the company base any future expansion in Maryland or New Jersey in this area?

“It doesn’t look likely that we’ll sell energy to New Jersey,” BlueWater representatives said. “New Jersey’s governor recently announced that they want 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2013, and it will take a couple of developers to get that done.”

But prospects for BlueWater – and local jobs with the company in the future – are somewhat stronger to the south.

“We could supply as much as 130 megawatts from this project to Maryland,” they said. “But we believe Maryland will be looking to construct their own facilities in the future.

“We’ve committed to the state that any projects built by us in New Jersey or Maryland will be staged in Delaware,” they concluded.