Environmentalists criticize federally backed Texas offshore wind project

The Texas offshore wind project that won a major federal grant this week is part of a massive wind farm plan that has drawn opposition from Gulf Coast environmentalists.

Austin-based Baryonyx Corporation has floated a proposal to erect 300 turbines in state waters near South Padre Island, raising fears about the impact on wildlife and scenic views.

Baryonyx began plans for the project in 2009. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve the project for construction, called for an environmental impact review and submitted the idea to public comment this summer. Public objections arose about the project’s  unprecedented size  and the possible effect on migrating birds, fishing industries and endangered species.

In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in May, a top Texas Parks and Wildlife official said his agency had serious concerns about the project.

“Numerous federal and state-listed threatened and endangered species and species of concern have been documented within or near the proposed corridors within which transmission lines would be constructed,” wrote Deputy Executive Director of Natural Resources Ross Melinchuk.

Baryonyx’s three-turbine proposal that won a federal grant worth about $4 million dollars from the Department of Energy, called the Gulf Offshore Wind or GO-Wind project, is a demonstration project for the larger wind farm.

Baryonyx CEO Ian Hatton said the company plans to address environmentalist concerns.

“We were fully aware of all the issues. There were no surprises to us at all,” Hatton said of the public resposne. “We recognize when you undertake these studies, you might have to modify your plans.”

In response to the public review, Hatton added in a written statement released Thursday, “Constructive feedback from many interested organizations and individuals was received and this information will be used to shape the assessment studies needed before a decision to install the GO-Wind demonstration project can be made.”

While wind power is one of the fastest growing sources of electricity in the country, there are no offshore wind farms in the United States. Some have been permitted off the Atlantic Coast, but none have started construction.

Baryonyx holds leases in the Gulf of Mexico as far as 10 miles offshore. The demonstration project is slated for an area four to five miles offshore in water 50 to 60 feet deep, Hatton said, and it would be visible from shore.

The Department of Energy’s federal offshore wind power grant program targets innovations that lower the cost of electricity generated by offshore wind farms and improve the economic viability of the renewable energy source.

The GO-Wind project plans to develop and incorporate several technologies to lower the cost of generating offshore wind power. The turbines would be constructed with stronger, lighter weight material, reducing the amount of steel used, Hatton said.  And they would stand atop advanced foundations called jackets, which support larger turbines in deeper waters. That allows the blades to capture stronger winds and generate more power per unit.

The project also plans to use direct-drive technology that eliminates the need for a heavy gear box in the turbines.

Hatton said some of the technologies draw on advances developed by the offshore oil and gas industry.

For instance, Brownsville-based Keppel AmFELS, an oil rig construction company, is a partner in the GO-Wind project to produce the turbine jacket structures, he said.

“The benefit we have in Texas is, on the Gulf Coast, we have a historic industry that developed there to support offshore oil and gas,” Hatton said. “In the future, that industry can be used to develop offshore wind.”