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USACE Finds Wind Power Gaining Momentum as a Viable Energy Alternative

The Army Corps of Engineers is committed to increased energy efficiency

The development of alternative energy options is fast becoming a priority to many Americans and has emerged during the past several years as one of the nation’s great challenges. There is increasing awareness of climate change issues and the role of fossil fuels in contributing to accelerated atmospheric warming. Americans are equally frustrated by dependence on foreign oil and increasingly aspire to greater energy independence through the pioneering use of alternative energy strategies.

Wind energy has been used for centuries in many parts of the world to move sailing vessels, grind corn and grain, pump water, and accomplish a host of other labor-intensive tasks. As industry and government look toward diversifying their energy generation portfolios, wind-turbine technology promises to be a strong alternative. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is committed to becoming more energy efficient at its own facilities as well as helping maximize the use of alternative and renewable energy options, including wind energy, at U.S. military and other government installations.

The Army has established and is implementing an aggressive “net zero program” to appropriately manage its use and stewardship of natural resources in the areas of water, waste, and energy. Regarding energy, a net-zero installation is one that combines the use of renewable energy and conservation practices to produce as much renewable energy on site as the installation uses during the course of a year. The Army is piloting five installations to be net-zero energy by 2020, with a goal of 25 installations by 2030.

USACE is working to help incorporate wind power into the renewable energy strategies of Army facilities where reliable wind resources can be harnessed. For example, Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Ariz., has recently completed the installation of a wind turbine capable of generating 1 MW of electricity, enough to power 250 to 300 homes.

“If the goal is to ensure that an installation is relying on renewable energy, wind power must be considered,” said David Williams, manager, Energy Programs, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It is a resource that increases the probability that conventional utility systems will be able to meet demand requirements.”

For military installations striving to achieve net-zero energy status, land-based wind power represents one option out of many for renewable electricity generation. USACE’s Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) has taken a lead role in addressing the issues involved with developing and implementing large- scale renewable energy projects, which are intended to significantly improve energy management, reduce energy use, and emissions that contribute to air pollution and improve energy security.

“One goal is to combine energy strategies and technologies through an ‘islanding’ approach on an installation so that if necessary, the entire site could be disconnected from the local utility and generate its own power,” said Franklin Holcomb, Energy Branch chief at ERDC’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL). “In addition to wind energy, a network-controlled, distributed architecture could include solar, biomass, waste-to-energy, and emerging renewables with fuel cells, ground-coupled heat pumps, standard diesel generators, and other resources.”

For large renewable energy infrastructures, CERL completed a study to assess their potential impacts on military installations. The study was undertaken to help managers make informed decisions about the trade-offs between: renewable energy production and ecosystem services; energy and water availability; and energy production and current or potential future mission use.

Dignitaries turn orange sand to celebrate the beginning of construction for the Clemson University Restoration Institute’s large wind-turbine drivetrain testing facility. Photo by Rebecca Dalhouse, Clemson University

The study identified more than 20 factors to be considered in decisions about renewable energy projects. Among these factors that can impact, or be impacted by, renewable infrastructures are geology, soils, and seismic activity; climate; water resources; air quality; air space; communications; cultural resources; visual; waste management and hazardous materials; recreation; regulatory; and others.

By fully recognizing and analyzing ecosystem attributes, decision-makers will be able to effectively balance the ecosystem, environmental, and other trade-offs necessary to achieve Army renewable energy goals. The study is documented in an ERDC-CERL Technical Report available at:

While USACE and the Army look at wind power as a renewal energy source, many utility companies in coastal states also are pursuing offshore wind power projects. Locations up to three miles offshore are considered state waters, while locations beyond the three-mile limit are considered federal waters. USACE has regulatory (permit) authority for both ocean areas: the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 (Section 10) regulates activities in navigable waters and the Clean Water Act (Section 404) regulates dredge or fill impacts to any water of the United States. Since an offshore wind farm would involve transmission cables coming ashore to connect to the existing electrical grid, there could be impacts to other aquatic resources such as wetlands.

Ultimately, a Department of the Army permit will be necessary for any offshore wind-construction project. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) also would play a role in the federal approval of such a project. NEPA requires any agency undertaking a federal action, such as a permit decision by USACE, to identify and disclose the expected environmental effects (positive and/or negative) of the proposed action. The NEPA documentation is typically prepared in an Environmental Impact Statement made available to the public and on which agency permit decisions can ultimately be based.

For projects proposed in state waters, USACE will act as the “lead” federal agency to address the NEPA obligation and typically will invite other agencies to cooperate in the process. However, for projects proposed in federal waters, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), formerly known as Minerals Management Service, would have lead federal agency responsibility because of its role in granting leases for use of the necessary ocean space. USACE would act as a cooperating agency in that process as well. In fact, USACE and BOEM are currently working together to revise and update a memorandum of understanding between the two agencies that will address the cooperative process to be followed and thus facilitate the most efficient lease and permit review process possible.

Perhaps the most publicized offshore wind farm proposal to date has been the Cape Wind Energy Project proposed in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts. On Jan. 5, 2011, the USACE New England District signed its Record of Decision to permit construction of 130 wind-turbine generators capable of producing up to 454 MW. The permit decision marks the first USACE permit for offshore wind power in the United States, and it is expected that similar proposals in other coastal states will surely follow.

At least two other projects currently are being considered in the Northeast. Fisherman’s Energy of New Jersey applied to the Philadelphia District in August 2010 for a permit to install six wind turbines capable of generating up to 20 MW of electricity 2.8 miles offshore from Atlantic City. Although no permit applications have been received yet, a venture called Deepwater Wind is actively working toward a 28.8 MW wind farm near Block Island, R.I., and a larger 1,000 MW wind farm off the southern coast of New Jersey.

Farther south where warmer ocean waters create strong seasonal storms, offshore wind farms have not been considered practical until recently. A newer breed of turbines, more capable of withstanding the higher-speed sustained winds and unpredictable gusts that can occur during hurricane season, has been developed and manufacturers continue to pursue more reliable and damage-resistant turbine designs.

Several states along the South Atlantic coast are evaluating the possibilities for wind power in their offshore waters. For example, the South Carolina Energy Office received a U.S. Department of Energy grant in 2008 to explore the possibilities of offshore wind power. As part of this grant, a Regulatory Task Force for Coastal Clean Energy was formed and has been working since spring 2009 to evaluate the regulatory requirements that would face any proposal to install wind turbines in waters off the coast of South Carolina. The Task Force is comprised of numerous federal and state regulatory and natural resource agencies, including USACE, BOEM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, as well as numerous industry, academic, and research institutions in the region.

While a fully funded construction proposal for an offshore wind farm is not likely to be complete in the next year or two, other preparations are already occurring in South Carolina. One utility company recently erected a demonstration wind turbine on land in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and plans to construct a 90-meter-high meteorological platform offshore to gather wind speed, wind direction, and other scientific data. The data gathered would be used prior to applying for a permit to construct a demonstration project of 20 turbines offshore near Georgetown. Another major step in support of offshore wind power broke ground on Oct. 28, 2010, in North Charleston, S.C. Construction of the Clemson University Restoration Institute’s large wind-turbine drivetrain testing facility is under way and will contribute to better understanding of how effectively current turbine designs withstand the forces of hurricane season storms in the South Atlantic Bight.

What about environmental impacts? There will be impacts associated with any size offshore wind project, because even the most necessary public benefit projects do have some level of impact. Certainly there are concerns regarding any effects during construction and operation to resident and migratory birds, whales, and other marine mammals, and also to sea turtles. There are other areas of concern as well. Will commercial fishing be allowed in the vicinity of a wind-turbine array? How will areas used for dredging sand be affected?

Thus, it may be necessary for states to identify and prioritize compatible and competing uses for the ocean space to be dedicated for use in wind farming. The concept of marine spatial planning (ocean zoning) is already being studied in many states, and USACE districts are participating in these efforts.

“Clearly, there is a lot taking place to prepare for a future that includes making use of the wind resources off our coasts,” Williams said. “The Corps of Engineers will be a major player in the federal approval process. Along with the entire spectrum of agency partners with whom we work, we are committed to facilitating the review of these projects to promote clean energy options. The use of wind energy in conjunction with conventional and other renewable energy sources offers the U.S. and our Army installations an opportunity to decrease our dependency on foreign energy sources.”

This article first appeared in the 2011-2012 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces publication.