Wind turbines supplying energy to homes and businesses will one day line Texas' 376-mile coastline if the state's Land Office Commissioner has his way.
The turbines will stand about 10 miles offshore, enough to preserve the treasured view but close enough to make coastal wind power an affordable energy alternative still missing in the United States, Commissioner Jerry Patterson (search) said.
Last month, the office announced a deal with a Louisiana contractor to build 50 turbines designed to power about 40,000 homes.
Economists, engineers and industry executives say wind energy is needed. Even though the construction and transmission costs may preclude lower bills, wind energy's (search) appeal is gaining momentum because it's clean and lessens dependency on oil and natural gas. Federal tax breaks for developers and the rising cost of natural gas used to generate power also enhance wind energy's future fiscal benefits.
Still, some environmentalists worry about disrupting the ecosystem and economists warn that offshore projects will cost more to build than onshore wind farms.
"There will be some environmental issues and it will not solve our energy problem, but it will certainly play a key role," said Raymond W. Flumerfelt (search), dean for the University of Houston's school of engineering. "Wind will still be the first renewable energy that is economical. That's where we will see movement on the part of the investment community."
Wind energy is not a new concept. About 1 percent of electricity in the United States is generated by wind farms, primarily in the Midwest and West. This year, new onshore projects in states such as California, Texas and New York are expected to help power 700,000 homes.
But the offshore turbines remain unproven at least in the United States. Meanwhile, United Kingdom and Scandinavian countries have operated coastal farms for the last several years.
Momentum for U.S. offshore wind farms will pick up along the coasts over the next decade, Patterson said.
On Oct. 23, he announced plans to lease 11,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston Offshore Wind, a division of Wind Energy Systems Technologies (search) of New Iberia, La. , and more sites in the Gulf will be announced within the year.
The company is investing between $250 million and $300 million in the project and the turbines will come online perhaps as early as 2009.
In addition to Texas, wind farms are proposed for sites about four miles off the south shore of Long Island, N.Y., and in Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound (search) off Cape Cod.
"You may find a lot of these soon," said Herman Schellstede, Galveston Offshore's president. "We need power in the United States badly, and something like this can be an economic success."
In New York, the Long Island Power Authority (search) hopes to have a 40-turbine farm in federal waters up and running within three years.
Sharon Laudisi, LIPA's clean air manager, said projects in other waters such as the Gulf of Mexico can help those in the East Coast gain momentum.
"What you'll see is continuing growth of acceptance toward alternative energy," Laudisi said. "People are recognizing this as a means of increased self-sufficiency and less dependency on oil and gas."
But the Cape Cod project — a wind farm proposal of 130 turbines, each 400 feet tall — is a political tug-of-war over possible disruption of the ecosystem.
Also at issue: private development in federal waters off the East Coast, where there are no regulations for private developers as there are in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil rigs, platforms and pipelines have operated for decades.
"You're taking 25 square-miles and turning it over to a special-interest group," said Christy Mihos, co-chair for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (search) in Hyannis, Mass.
"We have environmental and ecological issues with migratory birds, boats going back and forth 18 hours a day, and that the project will sit in the navigational area.
Mark Rodgers, spokesman for Cape Wind, said another brutal Northeast winter and spiking heating oil prices will have people seeking a compromise.
"We are at the end of the pipeline for natural gas and for oil, which will be in short supply this winter," he said. "There will be increased interest this winter in how we can tap a locally available energy source that we don't have to import."
For now, gauging the viability of the offshore wind farms is best done along the coasts of European countries.
United Kingdom and Scandinavian countries have produced energy this way since the late 1990s and are either expanding existing farms or planning new ones.
"The United States lacks a consistent long-term energy policy to promote renewable energy the way European countries do," said wind energy consultant Bruce Bailey, president of AWS Truewind LLC in Albany, N.Y. "Europe has a vision to have more green energy for climate change issues and for other reasons, but we don't have that in place."
European countries have also been generous with tax breaks and subsidies, industry executives said.
The most recent U.S. energy bill, passed by Congress in August, provides tax credits for wind energy, but only projects coming online by Dec. 31, 2007.
The 2007 deadline is one that does not foster enough long-term development commitments, said Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association (search).
Peter Hartley (search), economics professor at Rice University in Houston, says upfront costs for coastal wind farms are higher than those for onshore wind farms.
He said other risks include not having enough wind during peak times, thus leading to a blackout, and keeping turbines stable against tropical storm or hurricane winds in the Gulf.
"I think solar energy is a much more likely long-term energy source," Hartley said. "Still, the nice thing about wind is the fuel costs are about zero and the operational costs are low."