A (Re)Birth for Offshore Wind

by Richard T. Stuebi

In the early 2000’s, much of the interest of the worldwide wind energy community was focused on offshore opportunities. This was because the world’s largest wind market — Europe — was getting developed towards saturation, and the best wind resources were offshore where population density was not going to be a factor. Several high-profile projects — such as Middelgrunden off the shores of Copenhagen, and Ireland’s Arklow installation by GE (NYSE: GE) — generated arguably more publicity than kilowatt-hours.

In the past few years, the momentum for offshore wind has reversed. Completed projects cost more than expected to developers and manufacturers alike, and — in the U.S. — the siting controversies associated with the ignominious Cape Wind project have cast doubt on the near-term viability of offshore wind. In the meantime, the fortunes for onshore wind have never been better, especially in what is now the world’s largest market: the U.S., where population density and land availability is not a constraining factor for the foreseeable future. The wind industry overall is booming, the current opportunities are all onshore, and everyone’s making hay while the sun shines. Correspondingly, offshore wind has been shunted to the back burner.

Here in Cleveland, a contrarian view is emerging. The Cuyahoga Regional Energy Development Task Force recently issued Building a New Energy Future, a report outlining the concept of a Lake Erie Wind Energy Center. This would be comprised of two components: a 5-20 megawatt demonstration project 3-5 miles offshore downtown Cleveland, and an affiliated research center to enable the invention and testing of next-generation wind energy technologies optimized for offshore application.

The next step is for a team of advisors to be retained to perform a detailed feasibility study to ensure that there are no truly insurmountable obstacles — technical/engineering, economic/financial or legal/regulatory — to its completion. If/when completed, the vision is for the Cleveland area to seize leadership in offshore wind, tackling the fully-acknowledged challenges now while the rest of the wind industry is preoccupied with capturing the onshore opportunities, so that when (not if) the offshore wind industry really blossoms, Cleveland will be the acknowledged center of offshore research, deployment and manufacturing.

I was privileged to serve on the Task Force that developed this report, and am pleased that its release has generally been well-received. However, there are some who wrinkle their brows and question the sanity of focusing on the offshore wind opportunity at this time.

Why not focus on onshore wind? Because the private sector is aggressively pursuing good onshore wind opportunities already, because Ohio’s onshore wind resource is modest, and because onshore wind deployment even in large volumes does not generate many ongoing jobs. Economic revitalization for our region will only come with high-paying research and manufacturing jobs, which in turn will come by addressing the needs of the wind industry that others are avoiding for the time being.

We cannot afford to wait until others start focusing on offshore wind. We will break down the barriers of offshore wind development on the Great Lakes to build the market demand. We will work with manufacturers and researchers to break down the technical and engineering barriers and improve the economics of offshore wind supply. In so doing, in decades to come, we can see gigawatts of wind offshore in Lake Erie, generating a large portion of our region’s energy requirements without producing any air emissions, built with equipment supplied by local manufacturing operations, installed and maintained by offshore wind service companies (akin to the base of expertise in offshore oil/gas E&P that resides in Houston and New Orleans).

It’s a bold vision, certainly with risk, but it’s doable, and worth doing. Wish us well and keep your eyes on us.

Richard Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement for The Cleveland Foundation, and is the Founder and President of NextWave Energy.

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