Kevin Knobloch is President of New York OceanGrid LLC, where he leads the efforts of Anbaric, a developer of electric transmission systems, to build a wind energy transmission grid off the coasts of New York and New Jersey. He previously was a senior research fellow at the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at the Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Kevin was appointed by President Barack Obama to be Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of Energy in June 2013 and worked with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in that role through January 2017. He was President of the Union of Concerned Scientists for ten years and Executive Director at UCS for four years before that. Earlier in his career, he served as legislative director for U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado, legislative assistant and press secretary for U.S. Representative Ted Weiss of New York, and director of conservation programs at the Appalachian Mountain Club. He began his career as a reporter for The Berkshire Eagle and editor for The Swampscott Reporter, two Massachusetts newspapers.
Kevin is a panelist at the November 7 offshore wind forum sponsored by the Waterfront Alliance and the General Contractors Association of New York. Recently, we spoke to Kevin about what it takes to channel electricity from ocean wind farms to shore.
Big steps have been taken this year to advance the offshore wind operations in the region, including New York State’s recent agreements for two wind farms to be built off Long Island. The Europeans have been building offshore wind structures since 1999. Any lessons learned in Europe that might help us?
We have the luxury of learning from them. For example, early efforts in Germany to align the planning and construction of transmission and the planning and construction of generation was problematic, but they sorted it out. Today Germany and the Netherlands employ a state-owned transmission organization, TenneT, to plan the offshore transmission grid.
TenneT’s planning of offshore transmission grids ahead of generation has the benefit of removing transmission risk for the generators so they can focus on the wind farm and plugging into the grid. It also focuses on separating ownership of power transmission and generation. The concept is that no single entity should own the power plant and the wires, because of concerns of open access to those wires. It’s a longstanding policy onshore here in US and it’s where the Europeans have moved to. In the UK, they do allow the wind generators to build both generation and transmission components, but they require the companies to sell off the transmission infrastructure to another company once it’s built.
Describe Anbaric’s proposed OceanGrid transmission system that would stretch from Long Island to Cape May, NJ, and potentially serve multiple offshore wind projects.
The New York-New Jersey Ocean Grid is a proposed offshore wind transmission network that when fully built out could deliver 5,900 megawatts of clean energy to shore. The basic idea is to minimize the amount of offshore infrastructure in water, and minimize impacts on fisheries, marine species and on the coastal communities where we need to bring this power to shore. The model is to station high-voltage direct current collector stations offshore, which would collect between 800 and 2000 megawatts of electricity (from two to three wind farms) and run a single cable to shore. We have an application in front of the Bureau of Ocean Management at the U.S. Department of the Interior for a right of way, right of use and easement grant that would permit this offshore transmission network.
Optimistically, BOEM could grant this permit in six months to a year, including completing an environmental assessment. We would then be required to complete a General Activities Plan providing even more specific siting details; this takes us to two years. Even then, we would need to win a New York State procurement for the privilege of building the project.
We’re at the front end of this brand-new industry. The government authorities with responsibility in this realm are writing the rules of the game as we speak. This past January, Governor Cuomo directed his team to initiate a first-of-its-kind effort to evaluate and facilitate the development of an offshore transmission grid that can benefit New York ratepayers by driving down the cost of offshore wind generation, and our understanding is that NYSERDA and other state entities are starting this conversation. We certainly hope they’ll be convinced that conducting a transmission-only procurement for offshore wind will bring in the most creative ideas, that will in turn bring down ratepayer cost.
Taking a step back, the question of whether transmission companies or wind power developers themselves should build the connections between offshore wind farms and on-shore power grids is a hot potato right now. What are the benefits of having a separate company build transmission lines, rather than have the wind power developers incorporate this job into their comprehensive plan?
We believe that planning transmission and an open access grid is more in the public interest. That said, the first round of New York State procurement bundled generation and transmission. Equinor and Orsted [winners of New York’s first two offshore wind contracts] proposed they would build both wind generation and transmission to shore; that’s how the RFP was designed. Going forward, we should plan the grid out and separate the ownership of transmission and generation. It’s really about inviting the best ideas for designing the transmission that yields the most public benefits.
You are meeting with organized labor, environmental groups, community organizations, government agencies, and other stakeholders to describe what the transmission systems entail. Can you give us a sense of the range of questions you face?
One of the hallmarks of Anbaric is that we invest a lot of time and effort in outreach, because transmission is industrial infrastructure and it’s very important that we understand what the concerns are and we do everything we can to mitigate them. In the case of organized labor we are committed to labor agreements, paying prevailing wages and working with the key locals. With environmental organizations you have the macro issue of climate change. Offshore wind really is poised to make a major contribution in bending the carbon curb down. Designing a smart transmission grid is key to maximizing that clean energy. In the case of commercial fisheries, where New York has significant squid and scallop fisheries, among others, the fishing community is very concerned about the advent of all this proposed infrastructure. We also know that fishing stocks are already stressed. It’s important for us to hear their concerns and make the adjustments we’re able to. For example, we would do everything we could to relocate a cable pathway if it were to adversely affect a key fishing ground.
Anbaric has applied for connections to substations in Brooklyn and on Long Island, to be ready if the BOEM grants Anbaric the right to build the transmission grid. Help us understand this process.
Our business model is to apply early for the right to connect to the electricity grid. You have to bring the cable to shore at some point and then get it from landfall to an existing substation. We would propose it to be buried the whole way. You’d look for existing rights of way and infrastructure to follow. If it were direct current you’d have to build an onshore converter station—a mini substation—that would require three or four acres. If it were alternating current, you’d still need an acre or two for the mini substation. And then you’d run a cable to connect to the substation itself. These converter stations are not power-generating facilities. They can be designed to look like an attractive box store. There are no emissions, no water use. There’s a soft hum, but even that can be masked to meet any local sound ordinances. We would seek to work with municipal zoning and permitting authorities and before that with neighborhood groups once we identify potential sites for infrastructure and landing zones.
What are impacts of transmission lines on waterways and waterfronts?
We bury the cables in the sea bed four to six feet, deeper as needed. On an earlier Anbaric project on Long Island, for example, we came in 50 feet under the beach, using horizontal directional drilling and came up on the far side of sensitive wetlands. Coming into Brooklyn or Staten Island, we would look for a landing spot that probably would already be zoned industrial and have industrial infrastructure. Anywhere we go, we would expect there could be existing environmental contamination, and we would expect to improve the parcel overall.
You have worked in the nonprofit, government, and now the private sector. Any thoughts on how these three realms can better work together to advance renewable energy reforms?
Yes! I’m convinced that the private sector has a great responsibility and opportunity to accelerate the deployment of low carbon technologies. I wanted to try my hand to help from the business side. What I’ve discovered is that there’s a lot of commitment and passion among these companies—the wind generators, the solar companies, the transmission companies. And that it’s not easy work. The lens I bring to this is, what are the public interest principles that we’re trying to achieve? If you ask that question, you get some interesting perspective. The list I made includes creative thinking, problem solving, competition, affordability, reliability, redundancy, resilience, reducing environmental and fishing impacts. We overlay those principles into our work at Anabaric and figure out how to also be successful as a company.
Thank you, Kevin. We look forward to learning more at the offshore wind forum on November 7!