Offshore Wind Is a Bit Closer, Backers Say

Source: Matthew L. Wald • NY Times • Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2011

These may be uncertain times for renewable energy, with the collapse of Solyndra and a persistently low price for natural gas, a competitor, but the talk is upbeat at the American Wind Energy Association’s annual offshore wind conference, in Baltimore.

A transmission system would connect the Block Island wind farm to the island itself (yellow), and to mainland Rhode Island (red), exporting power not needed on the island.

Deepwater Wind of Providence, R.I., announced that it was buying a giant and radically redesigned turbine from Siemens of Germany for its project near Block Island. Fishermen’s Energy of Cape May, N.J., said it hoped to become the first operating wind venture in the country by breaking ground (or ocean bottom) off Atlantic City before the end of the year.

And the two big investors in the Atlantic Wind Connection, which has an audacious plan for an undersea transmission cable that would run from southern Virginia to northern New Jersey, said their project had made substantial progress since it was announced a year ago.

The conference, which opened on Tuesday afternoon, got a pep talk from the secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, and Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland. As Mr. Salazar pointed out, this is an industry that does not really exist yet.

“The United States is one of the world leaders in installed land-based wind energy capacity,’’ he said. “Total U.S. wind installations stand at over 40,000 megawatts, representing 21 percent of global wind capacity. We should be proud of that achievement.’’

But “we have zero offshore wind generating capacity to date — zero,’’ he said.

The offshore turbines in the Atlantic could produce more electricity than the nation’s entire onshore wind-generating capacity, Mr. Salazar said. He said his department might approve offshore leases

Governor O’Malley said the industry could produce jobs in manufacturing, construction and assembly in Maryland, 400 of them permanent.

The most concrete sign of progress, though, was an announcement by Deepwater Wind that it would buy five six-megawatt turbines from Siemens for a $205 million wind farm near Block Island. As part of the project, Block Island would be electrically connected to the mainland for the first time, and that’s where 90 percent of the electricity would go.

Rhode Island has already approved a contract under which Deepwater would sell the electricity for a price that begins at 24 cents a kilowatt-hour and rises by 3 percent each year. That might be a good price for Block Island, which has been burning diesel fuelto make electricity, but it is more than double the national average retail price, and an even larger multiple of the national wholesale price.

But Deepwater’s chief executive, William M. Moore, said the future of offshore wind depended on getting a project up and running. “Offshore is where onshore was 10 years ago — there’s no reference facility people can go look at,’’ he said.

One of the secrets to success, he said, is starting small. His project has a maximum generating capacity of 30 megawatts. Cape Wind, by contrast, is supposed to be 400 megawatts; project sponsors have managed to win contracts for only 200 megawatts, so they will build that amount as Phase One, they say.

The wind turbines that Deepwater has chosen do not quite exist yet, either. Siemens is running a prototype onshore, but it uses blades from its standard-3.6 megawatt machine.

The turbine maker says it has already sold the new model to one European buyer but will not say who that is; Deepwater is thus the first customer in the Americas.

Neither company would say what the machines will cost or even how big they will be. But Mr. Moore noted that the permit for his project allowed a rotor diameter of up to 165 meters. He added that the turbines would be planted three miles offshore and that at that distance, “the difference between a 107-meter versus a 120-meter or 165-meter rotor is almost indistinguishable.’’

Because the machines are built so the rotor tips have a wide clearance above the water level, a 165-meter rotor might put the upper tips near 600 feet. (The Statue of Liberty, including the base, is only 240 feet high.)

Most of the components will come from Europe. Thomas Mousten, head of Siemens’ offshore operations in the United States, said his company would not start manufacturing in the United States until orders in the pipeline amounted to about 1,000 megawatts a year for five or 10 years.

A far bigger project drew a mention from Mr. Salazar and highly optimistic talk from its backers: the Atlantic Wind Connection, the proposed wind “backbone” that would run a few miles offshore and connect to land in Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey.

It is only partly a wind energy project; it would also function as a major new transmission line. “It was very speculative when we started,’’ said John Breckenridge, a managing director at Good Energies, which owns 37 percent of the project. “I’m a lot more optimistic than I was a year ago.’’

The company cleared an important hurdle in March when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved its proposed transmission tariff. The regional grid operator, vendors, suppliers and others “seem to be coalescing around the project,’’ he said. But so far, support is stronger in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland than in Virginia.

Rick Needham, director of green business operations for Google, which also owns 37 percent, asserted that the project was making “great progress.’’ At a booth in the convention’s exhibition hall, the company was showing off samples of the cable it wants to lay, with a core of copper surrounded by insulation and armoring.

The plan is to lay the cable on the sea floor and then send down a remotely operated submarine that would pump huge volumes of water at medium pressure, liquefying the sea floor so that the cable, which would weigh 70 pounds per foot, sunk four to six feet underneath, safely below the level that scallop- and clam-digging operations penetrate.

The third project, Fishermen’s Energy, hopes to start work by the end of this year to take advantage of a federal subsidy program that may not be renewed. It plans a six-turbine farm that would be 2.8 miles from the boardwalk in Atlantic City. It aims to capitalize on the Offshore Wind Development Act, a New Jersey law that calls for a 25-megawatt pilot project.

Rhonda Jackson, the director of project development for the venture, said the company already has a pricing plan before the state’s Board of Public Utilities. The project is supposed to cost $200 million to $250 million. “I don’t like to say we’re going to be first, but we have a good shot,’’ Ms. Jackson said.

The conference continues through Thursday.