Progress toward building wind farms off the coast of New Jersey has been slower than some wind developers and environmental advocates had hoped.
Lease applications for the federal waters off the coast of the Garden State aren't expected to be released until next year. But already, businesses in related industries are hustling to capitalize on an offshore wind boom.
An audacious plan, to start in New Jersey
One of the companies betting biggest on New Jersey wind is the Atlantic Wind Connection, which plans to build a 350-mile energy transmission cable under the ocean floor off the Atlantic coastline. The $5 billion project, unveiled in 2010, boasts Google as one of its main backers.
The energy superhighway is intended to allow each offshore wind farm to tie in to a main transmission backbone, rather than building its own transmission line back to substations on the shore.
When originally unveiled, the project was set to span from Northern New Jersey down to Southern Virginia.
In January, the company announced the project would start in New Jersey, with a $1.8 million portion stretching from Atlantic City to Jersey City.
The company is now so focused on the New Jersey Energy Link, as the portion has been dubbed, Atlantic Wind Connection CEO Bob Mitchell brushes off questions about the rest of the project.
"I like to focus only on New Jersey," Mitchell said. "The possibility of a line being built in any of the other states, while we initially proposed that, it's very clear to us that the opportunity is in New Jersey. I don't know that the line will ever go beyond New Jersey."
Betting big on New Jersey
Despite regulatory delays, Mitchell said New Jersey is still farther along than any other state in developing its offshore wind program.
The Offshore Wind Economic Development Act, signed into law by Governor Chris Christie in 2010, guarantees a buyer for at least 1,100 Megawatts of offshore wind power.
The geography of the area also plays a role: the ocean floor off of the coast of New Jersey slopes relatively gently, so a transmission line could be built without digging too deeply.
But one of the biggest reasons Mitchell's company is starting their project in New Jersey has nothing to do with progress, or lack thereof, toward offshore wind in the state. It has to do with an older problem: New Jersey's congested energy grid.
"If you're on the highway and there's congestion, there's a cost to that," Mitchell said. "You use more gas, it burns up people's time, it's expensive. The same is true with electricity."
Currently, electricity traveling to power-hungry North Jersey faces these "traffic jams," and an offshore transmission line could help. Mitchell said about 60 percent of the time, the cable wouldn't be used for offshore wind at all, but for piping conventionally produced electricity North from South Jersey.
"By doing that you actually are able to move cheaper power into the more expensive area," Mitchell said.
The connection will need to win approval from regional grid operator PJM to be built. Experts say one of the factors they will consider is how much energy prices in South Jersey might go up if energy is shipped north.
Marketing an energy hub in South Jersey
Another player standing to benefit from New Jersey wind is Paulsboro in Gloucester County. By the end of 2015, it plans to open a port just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia International Airport.
Old buildings at the former BP petroleum holding site have been razed and the ground re-graded. On a recent visit, crews were working on a bridge over Mantua Creek to allow heavy truck traffic from the port to bypass the residential areas in Paulsboro.
Governor Christie signed the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act here in 2010, touting the potential of the law to create manufacturing centers in South Jersey.
"I think Paulsboro can become one of those centers, because of the port right here," Christie said then, "not only for wind turbines that'll be used off the coast of New Jersey but wind turbines that'll be used all up and down the East Coast."
This week, the Atlantic Wind Connection officially expressed interest in entering into lease negotiations with the port to locate its New Jersey manufacturing hub there. A new feasibility study showed it is possible to build large convertor platforms at the port. The port is courting other wind developers as well.
"Offshore wind could take up possibly two-thirds of the port," said Kevin Castagnola, head of the South Jersey Port Corporation. No leases have been signed yet, he said.
The port is brand-new, so it can be built to suit, and the port corporation has been marketing it as a one-stop shop for shipping and manufacturing for the huge components needed for offshore wind turbines.
The vision is for wind companies to have raw steal delivered directly to manufacturing facilities at the port, where it would be made into components for wind turbines. The components would then be loaded back onto boats and taken to offshore platforms to be installed, with no ground transportation necessary.
"[The components] are extremely heavy and cumbersome to be going over the road, so to be by the waterway is extremely cost-efficient and helpful," Castagnola said.
Using employment numbers at the port of Camden during boom times as a benchmark, Castagnola projects the port will create around 2,000 jobs, and more if manufacturing operations actually open there. The cost to taxpayers of building the port: $200 million.
Unlike Bob Mitchell at the Atlantic Wind Connection, Castagnola still talks about offshore wind in New Jersey as an "if" and not a "when."
Mitchell is a charismatic salesman for the benefits of offshore wind, while Castagnola is careful to stress that the port is actively courting other business in case the offshore wind boom never comes to New Jersey.