The American Wind Energy Association released its annual report on the industry Thursday, highlighting impressive growth of wind installations and manufacturing in 2009 despite the economic slowdown.
More than 10,000 megawatts of wind power was installed across the United States last year, raising the total installed capacity to over 35,000 MW — about 1.8 percent of all electricity generated in the country. Manufacturing of wind turbines is also picking up steam, with the industry now supporting about 85,000 U.S. jobs in more than 200 facilities. China is gaining ground quickly, but for now, the U.S. remains the biggest user of wind power in the world.
One subsector of the wind industry is still trying to power up, though, and that is offshore wind. The AWEA report lists 12 proposed offshore projects around the United States, and while the industry seems optimistic about their potential, there are clear obstacles.
"There is a lot of activity with new projects, [developers] are actually getting commitments with utilities for power purchase agreements, so it is beginning to ripen," said Elizabeth Salerno, the director of industry data for AWEA. "But I think there has to be a breakthrough."
As Usual ... Cape Wind
The most heavily anticipated breakthrough is the impending decision on the fate of the Cape Wind project off Massachusetts.
The project, touted for more than a decade as the first offshore wind farm in the country, is expected to feature 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound that would produce 420 megawatts of energy. However, Cape Wind has been held up by a parade of objections, starting with wealthy area residents, such as the Kennedy family, who fear their water views would be obstructed, and more recently from groups including the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation who argue it would interfere with their sacred rituals and ancient burial sites.
The most recent of those objections, which calls for Nantucket Sound to be designated for Historic Preservation and thereby unavailable for wind power development, is currently in the hands of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation came out against the wind farm last week. Salazar expects to make his decision soon.
Although Cape Wind stood alone for years in terms of proposed U.S. offshore wind plans, as Europe and China built their own massive offshore wind farms, there are now a number of other U.S. proposals that are progressing relatively scandal-free.
In Rhode Island, two offshore farms are planned, and a small project called the Block Island Wind Farm could actually lay claim to "nation's first" status. It is designed to have eight turbines and be sited three miles from the coast. The wind farm's developer, Deepwater Wind, is also working on a larger project located 15 to 20 miles offshore; together, the two sites could supply as much as 15 percent of the state's power.
Fishermen's Energy is working on two offshore projects near New Jersey. Its phase II wind farm would house 66 turbines providing 330 MW of power and would take up 20,000 acres about seven miles off the coast near Atlantic City. Other projects on the East Coast are planned in Delaware and North Carolina, along with others in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
The move toward offshore wind has also spread beyond the Northeast states. In Texas, Wind Energy Systems Technology is working toward a wind farm off the coast near Galveston, and the Lake Erie Development Corporation wants to build a pilot project of at most eight turbines in Cleveland Bay.
"There are a lot of discussions from the Carolinas all the way up to Maine in terms of doing offshore development," said Denise Bode, CEO of AWEA. "Clearly, just as offshore drilling is more expensive than onshore drilling, offshore wind is more expensive than onshore wind. We're the Saudi Arabia of wind, and you develop the thing that's least expensive first."
Huge Offshore Need
All of the proposed projects hope to provide the breakthrough needed, but as of yet, the final push toward construction has not happened. If the U.S. is to meet the renewable energy goals recommended by the Department of Energy, it needs to happen soon.
A 2008 DOE report on wind power recommended that 20 percent of all electricity in the country to come from wind, which Salerno said means about 300,000 total megawatts of capacity.
"Fifty thousand megawatts of that 300,000 was offshore based on that scenario," she said. "So, offshore has a huge role to play in moving us forward and being a larger part of the power mix."
The U.S. need only look across to Europe for a role model. The EU recently surpassed 2,000 MW installed offshore capacity, and according to Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, another 1,000 MW are expected to come online in 2010.
The EU mandate of achieving 20 percent of final electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020 is fueling the push toward offshore development, he said.
"That is a very powerful stick," Sawyer said. "Space is also an issue. I live in Holland, and there is a fair amount of onshore wind, but there is not a lot of space. Nor is there in Belgium, nor in Denmark, nor in the south of Sweden."
Recently, collaborative projects have been planned that will involve construction of "supernodes" in the North Sea and Baltic Sea; these will allow transmission of the wind-generated electricity to shore as well as providing interconnectivity between various member nations of the EU.
Wind industry officials and companies hope to see a similar centralized mandate in the United States. Twenty-nine states currently have renewable energy portfolio standards, but without a federal standard requiring utilities to bring in more power from the wind and the sun, that impending breakthrough in offshore wind might not be enough to truly jumpstart the industry.