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Offshore wind developers gear up

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Even as the state Supreme Judicial Court hears arguments today in yet another legal challenge to Cape Wind, the offshore wind energy industry continues to debate how to build similar projects up and down the East Coast.

“We’re on the verge of a lot of things happening,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, at the start of a three-day conference that began Wednesday titled “Turbines, Towers & Vessels.”

The nuts and bolts of how to get “steel in the water” is the focus of the Providence forum organized by Infocast Inc.

While Rhode Island and Massachusetts officials have worked both separately and together in recent years to develop wind energy planning areas off their coasts, other states from Delaware to Texas have joined the race to build the nation’s first offshore turbine.

From integrating offshore wind energy into the electric grid to building installation vessels, the hurdles the industry faces are significant but surmountable, according to conference participants.

The biggest problem the industry faces is how to develop a supply chain for offshore wind energy projects in the United States before markets exist locally for the related services and materials.

“The biggest single challenge for the industry is installation vessels,” Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said during a rundown on the status of several U.S. offshore wind projects.

For Cape Wind’s proposed 130-turbine wind farm in Nantucket Sound, the company will retrofit one or two existing “jack-up” barges used in the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico, Rodgers said. But he said the modified barges may not work in other areas.

The local availability of equipment and components specific to offshore wind turbines is an important step in kick-starting the nascent industry, said Paul Rich, development officer for Deepwater Wind, which has proposed a pair of wind power projects off the coast of Rhode Island.

“It is critical,” he said.

Connecting to the grid

The integration of wind energy into the electric grid is another challenge for developers, utilities and regulators. The challenge includes blending the above-market cost of offshore wind energy into the retail market, said Madison Milhous, director of renewable energy projects procurement for National Grid. The utility has agreed to buy half of Cape Wind’s power and all of the power for a demonstration project that Deepwater Wind is building off Block Island.

There is a limit to the use of state-by-state power procurement models, Milhous said.

“I can see the need to do procurement also in a regional way,” he said.

The cost of physically connecting wind power projects to the electricity grid must also be reduced if the U.S. offshore wind energy industry is going to succeed, forum participants said.

In Europe, where offshore wind power projects are now commonplace, regulators are working on a so-called “Supergrid” to ease the integration of offshore wind farms into the grid, said Pierre Bernard, secretary general of Elia Group, the operator of Belgium’s electricity transmission system. With a Supergrid, the cost of electricity transmission for several European offshore wind power projects could be cut 75 percent, he said.

Elia Group has joined a conglomerate, including the Internet giant Google, that has proposed to develop an offshore transmission backbone along the East Coast.

The high-capacity cable, which would involve relatively few regulatory hurdles to build because it would be constructed in federal waters, is a business opportunity for Cape Cod, said Joel Whitman, chief executive officer for Global Marine Energy Inc. The Boston-based company builds offshore cable installations, including some of the largest projects in Europe.

Whitman, who lived in East Dennis as a teenager, believes the roughly 1,300-square-mile planning area opened up for potential wind power development south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard will provide the demand necessary to boost the offshore wind industry in the Northeast.

“You have a market,” he said. “You can justify an investment in that location.”

Even after the turbines and cables are installed, there will be significant work in the continuous maintenance and inspections necessary to keep them running, Whitman said. Those jobs could go to Cape residents who want to continue working in the maritime environment even though the fishing industry has declined over the years, he said, adding workers may learn their trade at schools such as the Massachusetts Maritime Academy or Cape Cod Community College.

While developers at Wednesday’s forum bemoaned what they called a lack of coordination between states and the federal government on offshore renewable energy, they expressed hope that the industry will thrive one day, especially after the first offshore wind farm is built.

“While we still don’t have any steel in the water, we are getting close to that point,” Rodgers said.

Court challenge

Opponents of Cape Wind, including the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, will argue before the state Supreme Judicial Court today that the cost of the project’s power to consumers and businesses is too high. The groups also contend the agreement between Cape Wind and National Grid is unconstitutional and that it was arrived at through an unfair process that did not include competitive bidding.

The company has not announced a buyer for the second half of its power. NStar, which is merging with Northeast Utilities, is facing pressure from the state to buy power from the project, and NStar president Tom May said recently that he could not rule out the possibility.