Permitting and "Intergalactic" Transmission Issues Among Biggest Obstacles for Offshore Energy

Though many have touted the vast promise of ocean energy, it has been slow to reach commercial scale, especially in North America. Today, offshore generating technologies are less of an impediment to commercial project fruition than permitting, financing, and transmission challenges, but small changes are beginning to brighten the outlook for the newest power industry sector.

This week at ENERGY OCEAN (an event owned by Access Intelligence, which also owns the POWER brand), developers, equipment providers, regulators, and other industry supporters discussed  a wide variety of key issues for the industry. A Tuesday morning session on permitting at the Danvers, Mass., event focused on the practicalities of getting from idea to grid-connected electrons.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) drives permitting of all U.S. offshore energy projects and requires either an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or an Environmental Assessment (EA), but the list of authorities and regulations involved in the permitting process runs to roughly two dozen. Plan on three to five years for project development and permitting plus another three to five for construction, said Megan Higgins of Ecology & Environment Inc., the session moderator.

A new "Smart from the Start" process being championed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is designed to shave six to 12 months off the permitting process. Even so, every panelist underscored the importance of involving the full range of stakeholders and regulators from the very start of the planning process. Robert Mecarini, executive VP of Alpine Ocean Seismic Survey counseled that, partly because this is such a new industry, don’t rely on written regulations alone to guide you; talk with individuals early on to understand their expectations.
Among the key lessons shared by John Duschang, VP of HDR, an engineering and construction firm: Quantify project risk from all aspects by developing a risk register, understand that the shortest route (for cable, for instance) isn’t necessarily the shortest (when it comes to permitting, logistics, and other considerations), and allocate resources with the understanding that 90% of the risk derives from 10% of a project.

Joel Whitman, CEO of Global Marine Energy Inc., later picked up on that theme and noted that 10% of the cost of an offshore project in the Euro Zone is for cable installation (not including materials), while insurance companies will say that 80% of the losses are attributable to transmission issues. Transmission, he argued, is the critical path, even though the hydrokinetic devices are more interesting and get more attention. "Transmission issues for offshore are intergalactic," he emphasized. Then there are the risks involved with existing underwater telecom cable: cable crossing risks and the risk involved when repair to one or the other set of cables is needed.

Even the type of foundation chosen for a project has permitting as well as engineering implications, as Joe Marrone, project director for Ocean and Coastal Consultants pointed out. For example, pile-driving noise may affect marine mammals in such a way that it makes a monopile foundation impractical.

Given the complexity of offshore generation projects, all the panelists, including Weeks Marine Inc. VP Rick Palmer, advised getting all parties, including a contractor, involved from the start.

Audience questions during the Q & A session elicited additional insights into what would make permitting (in the U.S. in particular) more efficient. Whitman noted that the UK has done better than the U.S. in terms of site leasing by designating larger areas, which allows developers to move project elements around, as needed, rather than being constrained by 3-mile blocks.

Duschang noted that we tend to permit pilot studies as if they were large-scale ones, which discourages pilots and slows down progress. It also doesn’t make sense to apply regulations developed for "legacy industries" (oil and gas) to new ones (renewables), he said.

Source: POWERnews

—Dr. Gail Reitenbach, POWER managing editor