First U.S. Offshore Wind Turbine Factory Opens in Virginia, But Has No Customers Yet

Gamesa, which just opened the nation's first offshore wind turbine factory, isn't expecting the U.S. market to take off until 2015

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Wind energy giant Gamesa unveiled America’s first offshore turbine factory this month in Norfolk, Va., to eventually supply windmills for projects and build a competitive home-grown industry that is now essentially run by Europe.

The announcement addresses speculation over whether the U.S. is moving into the emerging offshore manufacturing industry. But for a nation that still doesn’t have a single turbine in its waters, the news invites another question: Who will be Gamesa’s first customer?

David Rosenberg, a spokesperson for Langhorne, Pa.-based Gamesa North America, was tightlipped on the matter in an interview with SolveClimate News. He said only that the company would be eyeing Virginia’s coast to install its new G11X turbine, a state that is ripe for wind development but has no ventures on the books, in addition to three other East Coast sites.

About a half a dozen proposals are on the drawing board for U.S. waters., the most famous of which — the long-beleaguered 130-turbine, 468-megawatt Cape Wind offshore farm in Nantucket Sound, Mass. — is slowly inching forward.

Developers finally completed a decade-long permitting process in January, and experts say it could be completed in the next three years.

NRG Bluewater Wind and Delmarva Power are expected to build 150 turbines off the coast of Delaware. Other projects are at various stages in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Texas, while Ohio wants to build a 20-megawatt, $100 million wind demonstration project on Lake Erie.

By contrast, nine European countries already boast nearly 3,000 megawatts of total installed maritime wind capacity, according to the European Wind Energy Association.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is eager to catch up. It has set a goal to install 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020 and 54,000 megawatts by 2030, in an effort to help reach the administration’s goal of getting 80 percent of the country’s electricity from cleaner sources by 2035.

Achieving U.S. Offshore Goals with U.S. Turbines

Rosenberg said the new Offshore Wind Technology Center in Virginia could give the U.S. a chance to reach its offshore energy goals through its own manufacturing capabilities.

Existing turbines are mostly built and installed in northwestern Europe, he said.

The center’s team of 50 engineers and manufacturers is already at work to design the prototypes for two 5-megawatt G11X turbines. They plan to install one on land and the other at sea by the last quarter of 2012, Rosenberg explained. The final technology will be sold to domestic and international wind farms.

“For the U.S. to become a leader in offshore technology, we need to have our own centers of excellence and be able to design and develop these types of products,” he said.

“Currently, we don’t have a similar type of technology center in the U.S., and by creating this center, we certainly have raised the bar in North America for having this type of technology development.”

Following the development of the prototypes at the Virginia center, Rosenberg continued, would be a period of refinements, technological improvements and possibly building future generations of turbines.

“Right now, we are still waiting for the [offshore wind] market to take off in North America and the United States,” he said. “Our thoughts are that by 2015, that’s when the market will really take off.”

A Turbine Factory is Born

Gamesa North America, a division of Spanish wind turbine maker Gamesa Technology Corp., teamed up with Northrop Grumman Corp, a century-old shipbuilding company in Newport News, Va., to jumpstart the initiative last October.

Gamesa has more than 20,000 megawatts of land-based wind energy installed in 30 countries on four continents, according to the company. Northrop Grumman’s other sectors include aerospace, electronics and technical services to governments and businesses worldwide.

On Feb. 10, the two firms jointly presented the 25,000-square-foot technology facility in the eastern town of Chesapeake.

Britt Theismann of the American Wind Energy Association said at the event: “Through this new center, Gamesa and Northrop Grumman are creating a new and revolutionary addition to the wind energy supply chain, right here in America. This facility is another example of the many jobs and economic benefits the wind industry is bringing to this country.”

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said the factory will help the state “become the East Coast epicenter for the offshore wind supply chain” and “a leader in the nation’s offshore wind industry.”

More Powerful Turbines at Lower Costs

The ribbon-cutting ceremony came just three days after the Obama administration announced in Norfolk, Va., that it could start leasing sites off the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey by the end of this year. The sites total more than 900 square nautical miles in potential offshore wind development.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that his department would identify additional Wind Energy Areas off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and North Carolina this spring.

At the same Feb. 7 event, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the federal government would spend $50.5 million over the next five years to fund research and development for offshore turbines to drive down costs and ramp up energy efficiency.

Rosenberg said that the Virginia technology center was reviewing components of the DOE’s offshore wind funds and would most likely submit proposals for grants this year.

According to Chris Vitarelli, director of the Northrop Grumman subsidiary Newport News Energy that is working with Gamesa, the idea behind the partnership is to build more powerful turbines that lower the costs of generating electricity.

Land-based wind power is still far more cost-effective than offshore wind, according to the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. While onshore wind costs about five cents per kilowatt-hour, offshore wind costs can start at nine cents per unit and reach as high as 25 cents, depending on water depth and wind conditions.

“What we’re trying to do is insert technologies in these wind turbine generators that drive the kilowatt-hour cost of energy down. How can we make the most efficient and reliable wind turbine as possible?” Vitarelli said.

Why Partner with a Shipbuilder?

Gamesa’s partnership with a shipbuilder is a natural fit for the turbine project, Vitarelli continued.

The industry’s marine engineers and manufacturing consultants are well acquainted with the materials and logistics necessary to combat the waves, salt water levels and harsh weather conditions in a maritime environment. Plus, industrial shipyards and heavy-lift vessels are needed to haul and install the offshore turbines.

According to Rosenberg, Gamesa’s decision to build in Virginia was solely based on its partnership with Northrop Grumman.

The U.S. has no mandate to establish which types of vessels or work crews would be required to run offshore wind operations, but the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also called the Jones Act, requires that all ships transporting goods between U.S. ports and in U.S. waters must be American ships built at home and owned by U.S. citizens.

Vitarelli said that the Virginia center could have a profound impact on creating U.S. jobs across the supply chain by increasing activity in ports and spurring development in harbors, enlisting the shipping fleets and creating manufacturing jobs to produce the offshore wind turbines.

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