RENEWABLE ENERGY:

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."

An industry in search of a workload

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."

The U.K. is ready now, not the U.S.

Offshore advocates hope the United States won't repeat its mistakes of three decades ago, when it watched Europe overtake it as the onshore turbine-making headquarters of the world. To make a fast push toward cornering the offshore market, the country needs to establish a nationwide requirement on utilities that makes them use more renewable energy, several industry and government experts said.

That would turn eyes toward the East Coast, where land-based wind farms are hard to site, but where strong offshore winds are blowing near big cities that could use the electricity.

"It reflects a national will towards having a percentage come from renewables," Bob Gates, senior vice president of Clipper Windpower Inc., said of a national renewable energy standard.

Clipper, a California-based company, has generated a spike in the number of domestic onshore turbines being manufactured in the United States. It has sold about 400 units since opening in 2006, Gates said. The climate bill passed in the House in June requires utilities to find 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. A similar bill in the Senate doesn't include the minimum standard.

Nationwide, the United States has seen its onshore turbine production increase twelvefold since 2005, rising from $450 million in components, then to $5.6 billion at the end of last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The group notes that "we are in a foot race to build up a wind turbine manufacturing base here in this country."

That race hasn't begun here yet for offshore turbines. And it's primed to get hot "sooner in the U.K. than in the U.S.," said Gates, whose company, Clipper, plans to begin selling a huge, 10-megawatt ocean turbine in Europe by about 2015.

U.S. opportunities still 'some years away'

The giant unit, which is still under development and named the Britannia, will stand about 550 feet tall and produce almost three times the amount of energy the largest offshore turbines produce today.

Gates says Clipper expects to begin manufacturing the mega-windmill in the United States a few years after it becomes available in Europe.

"The U.S. side is difficult, because there just hasn't been federal energy policy with respect to renewables that has been consistent and of a reasonably long duration, to where an investment in the manufacturing capacity would seem reasonable," he said.

Dirk Matthys, CEO of Gamesa North America, a subsidiary of the large Spanish turbine maker, said he sees "an opportunity for manufacturing offshore components in the future," but not now.

"The wind industry is really at a turning point right now, and whether you're talking about land-based or offshore wind projects, a renewable energy standard of at least 12 percent by 2012 is absolutely critical to ensure the investments are made to enable the U.S. wind industry to continue growing," he said in a statement.

General Electric Co., a major maker of onshore turbines, believes the "focus for offshore activity will continue to be in Europe," at least in the near term, according to a spokesman, Howard Masto. "The U.S. is beginning to talk more seriously about offshore wind, but we feel that offshore projects here are still some years away."

Need for more agency coordination

Coastal states in the East are hoping to change that. About 10 states, from Maine to Maryland, have agreed to join forces to find ways to share expensive elements of offshore wind, like ports used for installation and maintenance, scientific studies on the impacts of marine life, and perhaps a shared underwater transmission system that would link a chain of wind farms to big cities.

They're also having discussions with the U.S. Interior Department, which approves seabed leases, about shortening the long line of regulatory hurdles that developers need to clear before they can begin construction.

They believe Interior Secretary Ken Salazar might help them convince all the federal agencies involved in offshore to work in cooperation to reduce overlapping requirements for environmental impact statements and other requirements.

"This is a need to bring together all the federal agencies with the states to lay out a rational pathway for review of the projects," said Mark Sinclair, executive director of the Clean Energy Group, which is leading the effort. "The justification for that is the Cape Wind project. That's a clear example of where there was no coordination. We should use the Cape Wind project as Exhibit A as what not to do."