Can offshore winds spin a market for American-made turbines?
Middle Eastern oil is one energy dependency. Another, looming in the future, could be a growing array of wind turbines, situated along the Eastern Seaboard, manufactured by European companies and feeding electricity to nearby American cities. That’s what government and industry experts are trying to avoid — a new addiction.
The effort here to roll out an offshore wind industry is accelerating, but major gaps are still stopping turbine builders from opening U.S. facilities that could supply East Coast states with homemade blades, towers and nacelles. Experts expressed confidence in the United States’ ability to establish a strong offshore wind manufacturing sector, and also anxiety about the steps that aren’t being taken to get there.
The United States has yet to plant its first turbines in the seafloor, while Europe widens its lead, adding 1-megawatt every day on average, according to its industry group. Europe’s offshore winds now produce a total of 1,471 megawatts, the amount of electricity produced by a very large coal-fired power plant.
“If we don’t get on the ball and do it, the Europeans are going to do it,” Bob Thresher, a wind power expert with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said of turbine manufacturing. “They’ll gain all the experience, and they get the privilege of selling us all their equipment. So sitting on our butts and doing nothing is just gonna cost us.”
To people like Thresher, the United States needs to hurry up and allow someone to build the first wind facility in the ocean. That, in all likelihood, would be Cape Wind, a 130-turbine project proposed 5 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. It has been stuck in regulatory quicksand for eight years — a signal that has not helped to attract manufacturers or financing sources.
“They need to see there’s a critical mass of megawatts that are sort of in the pipeline or committed,” Greg Watson, the top renewable energy advisor to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, said of parts builders. “You’re not going to make a commitment to build a manufacturing facility unless you have some sense that there’s going to be a workload, or an anticipated number of projects.”
“We’ve had some frank discussions” with manufacturers, he added. “They might give you a quote that they need to see five or six more Cape Winds in the pipeline.”
Others say the bar is higher. Jim Lanard, managing director of Deepwater Wind, which has three offshore projects proposed in Rhode Island and New Jersey, said manufacturers want to see a decade-long outlook promising that 1,000 turbines will be installed.
“Instead of sending our dollars to countries that export oil, we’re now going to send our dollars to countries that export offshore wind equipment,” Lanard warns. “It’s billions of dollars being sent overseas. That’s thousands of jobs.”
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