OPINION: Wistful hopes for US offshore wind energy

Source: By Derrick Z. Jackson, BOSTON GLOBE COLUMNIST DECEMBER 29, 2012 • Posted: Monday, December 31, 2012

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 Virginia Beach, VA.

DESPITE ITS promise, the American wind industry is caught in the crosswinds of American politics — and that uncertain situation set up a surreal contrast when wind enterprises gathered here to tout their technologies.

The American Wind Energy Association’s conference exhibition hall was full of European and multinational firms that are busy plunging scores of turbines into their waters. German developers talked about how the industry has transformed rusting homeland harbors into bustling ports, while British officials boasted that industry investment in offshore wind will leap from $8 billion in the last decade to $80 billion in the next eight years.

Representatives of American firms could only watch wistfully and wish the US government cared as much about wind energy as Europe does. Peter Duclos and Tim McAuliffe were two of those wistful watchers. Gladding-Hearn, their Somerset, Mass., company, specializes in ferries, patrol boats, pilot boats, and tugboats. They want to make boats to transport workers and equipment out to turbines

“Some people estimate that for every 10 to 15 turbines, you need a vessel to get the technicians out there,” said Duclos, the company’s president. “And every active shipyard means other companies making more piping, electronics, even more business at the local liquor store.”

If the East Coast had a thriving offshore-wind industry, the ship-building company could double its current workforce of 100, added McAuliffe, the company’s engineering liaison.

“We could support 200 if we cranked up a second shift,” he said. “Those kind of boats are $3 million apiece. We make five or six boats a year, but we could turn out one a month. It’ll probably never happen that way, but that could be $36 million a year.”

Whether that happens all depends on politics, as does the fate of the American wind industry itself. The Department of Energy estimates that the potential power generation of offshore wind is approximately four times the capacity of the current US electric-power system.

Wind should enjoy bipartisan support. The American Wind Energy Association says more than 80 percent of land wind projects are in congressional districts represented by Republicans. Nine of the 23 governors in the Governors Wind Energy Coalition are Republicans. Three of the four states that get the greatest proportion of their electricity from in-state wind projects, including South Dakota at 22 percent and Iowa at 20 percent, have Republican governors.

This summer, the Senate Finance Committee approved in a 19-5 vote the extension of production tax credits that cut wind-farm development costs by about 30 percent. But Congress itself hasn’t acted, and non-wind-state Republicans have the production tax credits on the chopping block in the current “fiscal cliff” debate. They are set to expire on Dec. 31.

Since President Obama’s reelection, his administration has done what it can on its own. This month, it announced grants for seven offshore wind-demonstration projects around the nation. Two are off the coast of Maine, but Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, said the fact that the other sites include the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico “gives offshore a chance to pick up support among governors and mayors from other than the mid-Atlantic and New England states.”

Still, there is such uncertainty that 10,000 American land wind-energy jobs have been lost from an employment peak of 85,000 three years ago, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The industry predicts a loss of another 37,000 jobs without extension of the tax credits. That would put this country even further behind in the global competition on green energy.

While wind energy now meets nearly 30 percent of Denmark’s electricity demand and nearly 20 percent of the demand in Portugal, Spain, and Ireland, the United States has struggled to get to just 3 percent. The stagnation in the industry was reflected in a drop in companies in the exhibition hall during the autumn conference here. Those who were there did not try to hide their angst.

One pessimist was Stuart Clough, part of a partnership between British-based APEM and Normandeau Associates of Bedford, N.H., for high-resolution aerial surveying of marine wildlife around wind projects. He said that the United States had “minus eight years” to make up its mind about supporting wind at the level of Europe. Clough noted that if the industry’s tax credits are not renewed, it will be forced into unfair competition with an oil-and-gas industry that continues to get big tax breaks.

“Wind will be stillborn,” he said. “Many companies will give up on the US.”

Normandeau project manager Ann Pembroke shared his dismay.

“It’s so disappointing to be surrounded by the number of visionaries here who are dedicated to getting this industry going in the US but can’t because of divisiveness,” she said.

Frustration has focused everyone’s attention on Cape Wind’s effort to place 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. In the decade Cape Wind has spent trying to launch the first American offshore wind farm, the wind industry on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean has grown to 56 wind farms and 1,503 fully grid-connected turbines in 10 countries, according to the European Wind Energy Association. By 2030, offshore and onshore wind-power projects are expected to provide nearly 30 percent of Europe’s electricity and close to a half-million jobs.

“I’m actually optimistic that if you get Cape Wind going, and people realize it didn’t destroy anything, that support for it will grow,” said Pierre Bernard, a renewable-energy consultant from Brussels. “It would be a huge mistake for the United States to turn its back on the industry. Renewable energy was basically created in the US.”