The Mighty Wind

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 19, 2009

Deepwater and state officials are bullish on the site's prospects. The port sits at the center of a Maine-to-Delaware corridor that seems poised to produce the first offshore wind projects. Recent road and rail improvements have shored up the local infrastructure. And there are some 200 acres still available for lease to suppliers.

Siemens, a German company that is a leader in turbine manufacture, has reportedly expressed interest in Quonset. Smaller wind energy firms, too. And J. Michael Saul, interim executive director of the state's Economic Development Corporation, says the state has fielded inquiries from several green energy firms outside the wind sector.

"All the pieces are here," said David Preston, a spokesman for the Quonset Devel-opment Corporation, a quasi-governmental entity that runs the Quonset Business Park. "I doubt that there is any other place that can check off all those boxes."

But the port, if well situated, is not perfect. There are some technical issues. Shipping a turbine beneath the Newport Bridge and out to sea, for instance, could require a costly horizontal tilt. And, more importantly, there is plenty of competition for an offshore wind hub.

"Is Quonset the be-all, end-all for offshore wind?" said Erich Stephens of Offshore MW, a company with experience in Germany that is exploring opportunities in the US. "Not necessarily."

Massachusetts officials are surveying offshore developers in a bid to identify ports that could house parts of the emerging industry. And the state recently won a $25 million grant from the US Department of Energy to build a Wind Technology Testing Center, which it hopes to position as a magnet for development.

Delaware officials are touting the potential of the Port of Wilmington and examining other possibilities further south. And last year Bluewater, a firm planning an offshore wind farm there, became the first in the nation to sign a power purchase agreement with a utility.

In New Jersey, Governor Jon S. Corzine has set aggressive targets for offshore wind development and the state's Board of Public Utilities has provided $4 million rebates to each of the three companies testing sites for wind farms there — Deepwater, Bluewater, and Fishermen's Energy.

Rhode Island, meanwhile, is saddled with a reputation for poor cost and tax structure. And its reliance on a single firm as engine for development carries some risk. "With this industry not existing at all in Rhode Island, there's a real question about whether one company will do it," said Nathaniel Baum-Snow, an economics professor at Brown University who researches businesses' location decisions.

But other states have their own troubles. There are questions about the suitability of ports in New Jersey and elsewhere. And with Bluewater's chief backer, Babcock and Brown of Australia, in serious financial trouble, Delaware's march toward offshore power has stalled of late.

Moreover, if offshore wind has anything approaching the potential that analysts suggest, there is probably room for several hubs. "We do think there's enough demand to go around," said Collin P. O'Mara, Delaware's secretary of natural resources and environmental control.

Indeed, in the race to build a development center, speed may not be as important as it would appear. Getting there first has its advantages, of course. It creates a buzz. And "it's that publicity that brings people here," said Andrew Dzykewicz, Governor Carcieri's former energy czar.

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