Never-Used Tax Credit Could Jumpstart U.S. Offshore Wind Energy—if Renewed

A tax break that could help get America's first offshore wind farm up and running has been available for two years. But no one can qualify for it.

Offshore wind power developer Deepwater Wind installs a meteorological tower on
Offshore wind power developer Deepwater Wind installs a meteorological tower on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, to collect weather data. Deepwater is seeking to build a 30-MW demo wind farm a few miles off the island. Additionally, it has proposed building three 1,000-MW wind parks along the Atlantic coast. Image courtesy of Deepwater Wind.

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Congress is considering overhauling a never-used tax credit for offshore wind energy instead of letting it expire at the end of next year, as was originally scheduled.

The U.S. still doesn’t have a single turbine in its waters—compared to the 1,250 turbines spinning at nearly 50 offshore wind farms in Europe. Several U.S. industry leaders and analysts told InsideClimate News this is unlikely to change unless the untapped incentive is renewed.

The tax break, available since 2009, gives offshore wind developers a credit worth 30 percent their project costs if they begin construction by 2012. It was meant to help the dozen or so proposed wind parks get off the ground after the credit markets seized up.

But no wind developer has been able to take advantage of it because they don’t have approvals required under federal law. An uncertain permitting process in Washington has left projects in regulatory limbo for as much as a decade.

In part due to the permitting snags, “no bank has stood up and said they’ll finance offshore wind” in the U.S., said Peter Mandelstam, founder and president of NRG Bluewater Wind, a subsidiary of New Jersey power producer NRG Energy.

NRG Bluewater is now one of a handful offshore wind developers that’s literally banking on Congress to preserve the tax credit as the Obama administration moves faster to approve projects. His firm has been trying to build a $1 billion-plus, 450-megawatt wind park off the coast of Delaware for five years now. Strong and steady winds at sea can generate more carbon-free electricity than wind blowing on land, but offshore turbines are expensive—at least 50 percent more to build than those on land.

Our project is “not financeable” without a government kickstart, Mandelstam said.

Capping Megawatts, Scrapping End Dates

A new bipartisan bill, introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate, would keep the credit without any penalty for offshore permitting hiccups. It would do so by scrapping the subsidy’s expiration date and offering the same tax break for building America’s first 3,000 megawatts—however long that takes—enough to power more than one million typical U.S. homes. (The U.S. has nearly 43,500 megawatts of installed wind capacity, second behind China and all from turbines on land.)

Capping megawatts, rather than setting a cutoff date, ensures that developers “are not under the gun in making it through a regulatory process that we largely do not control,” said Jeffrey Grybowski, chief administrative officer at Providence, R.I.-based Deepwater Wind. The wind developer has proposed building three 1,000-megawatt wind parks along the Atlantic Coast and a 30-megawatt demonstration installation, known as Block Island, off Rhode Island.

“No project has made it into construction in the United States, so we are still very much uncertain about how long the regulatory process will take us all,” he said.

Cape Wind might be the most famous example of the industry’s regulatory mess. The 130-turbine wind farm in Nantucket Sound, Mass., still bears its ten-year-old tagline “America’s First Wind Farm,” though many doubt if it will live up to its name.

Despite landing a “power purchase” agreement last year with the regional utility National Grid to buy half of Cape Wind’s electricity—and becoming the first project to get all of its federal permits in January in the face of powerful local opposition—it continues to be saddled with regulatory woes. Most recently, a federal appeals court overturned the Federal Aviation Administration’s conclusion that the turbines pose no threat to planes.

Other projects, like NRG Bluewater’s Delaware wind park, may fare better on the regulatory front in the end, experts say.

NRG Bluewater lined up a buyer for half its electricity in 2008, though getting all its permits is still a few years away. Nor has NRG Bluewater raised enough money from private investors, whose participation is key in covering the 70 percent financing gap left by the tax credit.

Matt Kaplan, a North American wind analyst at IHS Emerging Energy Research, said removing the tax credit’s end date could help lure investors by guaranteeing the government’s support even if projects gets held up by bureaucracy or politics.

“Having a long-term incentive for offshore wind would help … investors to feel a bit more comfortable with knowing what they can expect out of these projects,” he said.

But even if the bill passes Congress, attracting financing will remain a challenge for never-before-seen wind farms in America, said Amy Grace, a North American wind analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Most financiers prefer to invest only after the first generation of projects proves successful, she said. “Most banks want to be the first to invest in your second project.”

Still, the subsidy gives the industry at least a shot, she said. “The tax credit won’t guarantee investment in the industry. But not having the tax credit will guarantee no investment in the industry.”

Why The Legislation May Have a Chance

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) introduced the Senate bill with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in July, in part to support NRG Bluewater’s planned Delaware wind park.

Carper, who chairs the Senate finance committee, said last month that he would meet with all six Senate members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to discuss the bill. The panel is tasked with creating a plan to curb $1.5 trillion from the federal budget deficit by Thanksgiving. Clean energy supporters in Congress have appealed to committee members in recent months to secure or extend tax credits for cleantech manufacturing and R&D.

In the House, Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) have proposed a companion bill that they say would help a 25-megawatt project by Fishermen’s Energy get built off New Jersey’s coastline.

The 3,000-megawatt incentive would cost the U.S. Treasury roughly $1.5 billion, according to estimates provided to InsideClimate News by Jim Lanard, president of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition, a lobbying group. The current tax credit, which the federal stimulus approved in 2009 for offshore and land-based wind, geothermal, biomass and other clean energy projects, costs roughly $3 billion.

Grybowski of Rhode Island’s Deepwater said he’s optimistic the investment tax credit will be approved by Congress, despite the ideological resistance from some Republicans to continue Obama’s green energy subsidies in the wake of the collapse of solar firm Solyndra, which received a $535 million federal loan.

“We have lots of strong support on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

One possible reason is that payments to the large-scale projects won’t begin for five years. “We think it will take 10 years before those first 3,000 [megawatts] are used up,” explained Lanard. He and other advocates of the bills hope this will sway a spending-averse Congress to okay the measure.

Another selling point is jobs. Mandelstam of NRG Bluewater said the first 200 megawatts of its Delaware project would create 500 construction and supply chain jobs over three years—a point he aims to drive home to lawmakers.

According to the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Obama administration’s goal to deploy 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity in the next decade and 54,000 megawatts by 2030, would create more than 43,000 permanent  jobs and generate around $200 billion in new economy activity.

A large chunk of that growth would come from luring global turbine and equipment manufacturers to set up shop along the Atlantic Coast, developers say. Lanard noted that making one offshore wind turbine requires some 8,000 parts from hundreds of different companies.

Mandelstam, who also heads the offshore group of the American Wind Energy Association, said he often plays “matchmaker” between European manufacturers and legislators and governors in coastal states, in an effort to entice them to open factories in the U.S. But manufacturers aren’t likely to follow until turbines are out at sea, he said. “The supply chain will follow the projects.”

Along with creating jobs, a domestic network of suppliers and skilled technicians could significantly cut the cost of building an offshore wind farm in the U.S., which right now “is higher than it would be for a comparable project in northern Europe, where there’s a developed supply chain,” Deepwater’s Grybowski said.

Who Will Build the First Offshore Wind Farm?

Meanwhile, the race to build America’s first floating wind farm is on. At this point Deepwater’s proposed 30-megawatt Block Island demo installation off Rhode Island appears to be leading—in part because it doesn’t need government financing.

The tax credit is “less critical for the Block Island wind farm because it is a smaller project,” Grybowski said. The project, which includes an underwater network of transmission cables to carry electricity from wind turbines to the mainland, is expected to cost around $250 million. Permits could be wrapped up by 2013, and the turbines, which would produce enough power for 12,000 homes on the island, could go up that same year.

“We are confident that we will have a financing package in place to allow the project to proceed,” Grybowski said. But for larger wind farms, he added, federal support is “critical.”

For now it’s still anyone’s guess which utility-scale wind part will be up and running first—and by when.

If the tax credit is extended, the first payments for big projects would likely be dispensed in five years or later and divvied up among the leaders—Cape Wind, NRG Bluewater’s Delaware wind park and Deepwater’s trio of 1,000-megawatt projects.

Cape Wind and NRG Bluewater are the furthest along. NRG Bluewater says it expects to wrap up all the necessary permitting by 2014. It could sign a lease even sooner from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which is expected to start leasing blocks off the coasts of Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia by the end of this year. (The developer is also seeking to build an additional 2,000 megawatts off Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.)

Theoretically, winds blowing off the Atlantic Coast’s Outer Continental Shelf could provide more than 1,000 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power 800 million average homes. But it’s not just the Atlantic states that are vying for offshore renewable energy.

Ohio wants to build a 20-megawatt demo on Lake Erie. Off the coast of Galveston, Tex., developer Coastal Point Energy is proposing a 12-megawatt project. It suffered a setback this summer after utility Austin Energy turned down the developer’s proposal for a power purchase agreement. Eventually, Coastal Point hopes to build 300 megawatts at the site and 2,100 more megawatts throughout the area.

The key for the entire U.S. offshore wind industry will be consistent government support, say the developers. “Stability in tax and regulatory policies will go a long way toward helping this industry develop in the United States,” Grybowski said.