The Mighty Wind

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 19, 2009

Still, giving birth to an industry is no mean feat. The Deepwater project, for all its promise, is a delicate enterprise. And Rhode Island is hardly alone in the race to create a hub for offshore wind development.

After years of stagnation, the state's great hope for revival will be no easy undertaking.


BEGINNINGS

Just a few months removed from the Bush Administration, it is easy to forget that the United States once led the way on wind power. But it did.

The energy crisis of the '70s spurred state and federal legislation that produced the world's first big commercial wind farms — most famously Altamont Pass, a sprawling development about an hour east of San Francisco that remains among the largest concentrations of turbines on the planet.

But a shift in tax incentives in the Reagan era led to a sharp downturn in wind development. And the industry repaired to the friendlier climes of Europe, where wind farms sprouted like Spring shoots before a land crunch pushed the turbines off the coast of Denmark and the United Kingdom.

Europe's head start on offshore wind presents some challenges for Deepwater and its stateside competitors: the bankers most familiar with offshore wind, the manufacturers that build the turbines and blades, and the companies that operate vessels capable of planting towers in the ocean floor are all overseas.

But a distant supply chain is not the only concern. There are political and regulatory hurdles, too. Indeed, the first major proposal for an offshore wind farm here — the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts — has been a rather unpleasant affair: running into all manner of bureaucratic roadblocks and a noisy, moneyed opposition concerned about spoiled views and environmental impacts.

Plans to erect the Deepwater project some 20 miles offshore, where the wind is stronger and more consistent anyhow, have blunted any serious political opposition in Rhode Island. But Cape Wind's costly, eight-year slog through a still-evolving permitting regime is enough to give even the most determined wind advocates in Rhode Island pause.

Venturing further out to sea also presents technical and financial challenges. The vessels that would be required to plant turbines far offshore — think massive barges, jacked up on the ocean floor for stability — are expensive, scarce and, in some cases, may not even exist.

And the giant, monopile steel poles that have anchored on-shore wind and the first shallow-water projects in Europe would have to grow to a prohibitively expensive size to withstand the wind and waves of deeper water.

Deepwater has turned instead to a multi-pronged foundation, connected by latticework. This so-called "jacket" technology is, in some ways, time-tested: it is based on the structures that have supported offshore oil rigs for years. But the only offshore wind development that has made use of the technology to date — indeed, the only deep water wind farm in the world — is a two-turbine test project off the coast of Scotland known as Beatrice, after an adjacent oil field.

Rich, of Deepwater Wind, insists that the technology is proven. Indeed, the firm has gone so far as to obtain a franchise license for the Beatrice jacket, developed by Norweigan firm OWEC. And just last week, a Deepwater-commissioned vessel from Louisiana was burrowing eight, 250-foot deep holes into the sea floor off Block Island as part of an effort to refine the design for Rhode Island waters.

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