By global standards, the Block Island Wind Farm is a tiny project, just five turbines capable of powering about 17,000 homes. Yet many people are hoping its completion, with the final blade bolted into place at the end of last week, will mark the start of a new American industry. Using a law passed by a Republican-led Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has been clarifying the ground rules and leasing out large patches of the ocean floor for wind-power development.
When the first offshore projects were built two decades ago, European nations had to promise the developers extremely high prices for the electricity generated by their turbines, sometimes three or four times the wholesale power price, to get a new industry going. Since then, offshore wind turbines have become a big business in Europe, worth billions, and the companies installing them have been able to create economies of scale. Recently, European nations have scrapped their old subsidy methods and have used competitive bidding to drive down the cost of the projects.
The Block Island turbines were built overseas by a division of General Electric and were installed by a ship from Norway, brought over at a cost of millions of dollars, with help from an American vessel. The Block Island project was a marriage of Rhode Island political will and New York financial expertise. Initial financing for the $300 million project came from the D. E. Shaw Group, a big investment firm based in Manhattan. Competitors are moving to challenge Deepwater Wind for the coming wave of offshore contracts, but the company hopes to hold its lead and win the next project, a proposed wind farm 36 miles off Montauk, N.Y., meant to supply the power-hungry South Fork of Long Island.
A project to install hundreds of wind turbines in the Fosen peninsula area of Norway at one point was shelved as unfeasible. The strong breezes that whip off the sea can shift and swing unpredictably, while the soaring cliffs and steep drop-offs create turbulence that wears out expensive equipment. The venture was rescued with a lot of help from the mathematical calculations of Vestas Wind Systems, a Danish wind power company. Vestas used data to figure out how to use more powerful turbines for the project, and precisely where to place them. That meant the utility developing the facility could buy fewer turbines, helping cut costs and balancing the economics of the $1.2 billion project. The global nature of the industry plays to the strengths of a company like Vestas. Unlike its rivals — such as General Electric, which focuses on the Americas — Vestas sells across a broader area of the world. It sold wind turbines in 34 countries last year, and it holds the biggest portion of the worldwide onshore wind turbine market, excluding China (which is dominated by domestic players).