After two decades spinning power from the gusts that sweep Europe's North Sea, the offshore wind industry is finally turning to the U.S. A big hurdle: getting its giant turbines to American waters.
No one in the U.S. currently makes turbine towers sizable enough for use in deep waters -- one of the many challenges impeding the buildup of offshore wind on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The first offshore wind installation in the U.S., a $300 million, 30-megawatt project off Rhode Island, began turning six months ago. Companies including Denmark's Dong Energy AS, Norway's Statoil ASA and Spain's Iberdrola SA are now pursuing more than a dozen projects that would dwarf it.
But the Block Island wind farm in the U.S. currently generates power for 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, while offshore wind projects in Europe can come in well under 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Developers are optimistic that, as occurred in Europe, prices will go down as more projects begin and a supplier network takes shape in the U.S.
"They are really viewing this as a real market if you are attracting players like Dong and Iberdrola and Statoil," said Maxwell Cohen, a senior research analyst at IHS Markit. "I've heard some pretty major companies that are not in offshore at least being asked, 'Why not?'"
If all 17 of the proposed farms are built, the wave of U.S. offshore wind projects, primarily concentrated in the Northeast, would add 9.1 gigawatts of generating capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. That is enough to power 3 million homes.
Offshore wind farms require hundreds of millions to billions of dollars to construct depending on their scale, and analysts say not all of the proposed U.S. farms will be built. But state-level policies that promote renewable energy are providing momentum.
Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called for 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind to be developed by 2030. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed legislation last year to have the state add 1.6 gigawatts of wind power offshore by June 2027.
Statoil won an auction late last year for the right to build a wind farm 14 miles off the New York coastline. Dong, meanwhile, has two proposed U.S. projects: one about 15 miles off Martha's Vineyard that it has teamed with Eversource Energy, a Northeast utility, to build; and another off the coast of New Jersey.
"I can really feel the appetite and the interest in the market now," said Thomas Brostrom, president of North American operations at Dong, which has built 22 offshore wind farms in Europe. "This is the moment."
Avangrid Renewables, an Iberdrola subsidiary, has joined with developer Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners to also build a separate wind farm off Martha's Vineyard.
Most of the 17 proposed projects are in federally designated wind energy areas. Such zones were created to help cut through some of the red-tape and community opposition that for more than a decade has blocked Cape Wind, a more than 400-megawatt project proposed for federal waters off Martha's Vineyard.
Jim Gordon, the man behind Cape Wind, is unwilling to concede defeat, saying the wind farm's lease is still active and that he hopes to see it built one day.
Block Island didn't have the same troubles, in part because it was much smaller and developer Deepwater Wind built it in state waters, which required fewer federal permits. But hurdles remain for large offshore wind projects in the U.S., including how to build out a supply chain that can regularly ship giant turbine towers from Europe.
Components like the enormous stands that anchor offshore turbines will have to be brought up from places like the Gulf Coast. That is because many U.S. Atlantic ports are small, and large vessels need to navigate busy shipping lanes, hurricane barriers and bridges.
This proved a challenge for the Block Island farm, said Meaghan Wims, a spokeswoman for Deepwater Wind. Its stands were brought up on barges from the Gulf Coast. The turbine towers and blades were shipped from France.
A Norwegian ship carrying the nacelles -- the housing that holds the main generating machinery -- couldn't fit under the Newport Pell Bridge that spans Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, so it skipped coming into port and went straight to the construction site offshore.
It can also still take considerable time to get the necessary permits and approvals for offshore wind farms from state and federal regulators. Mr. Cohen of IHS Markit said he doesn't expect to see the industry really ramp up in the U.S. until the mid-2020s.
Still, developers are confident that manufacturers and other suppliers will set up shop in the U.S., and costs will come down, once sizable projects are built.
"We've done this in Europe and we have absolutely the same opportunity in the U.S.," said Stephen Bull, Statoil's senior vice president for offshore wind.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 09, 2017 16:00 ET (20:00 GMT)