Offshore Wind Developers Eye the Horizon

Last Updated Sep 16, 2009 7:57 AM EDT

A world first started up this week: the 2.3 megawatt Hywind, a floating wind turbine situated about six miles off Norway's coast, built as an experiment by StatoilHydro. The company first floated the turbine in June, and just yesterday let it begin generating electricity.

The Hywind is unique in that it's further off the coastline than any wind turbine to date, but it also fits the general pattern of offshore wind. It's a pilot project, and despite having plenty of potential, we're unlikely to see much more happen for the next several years. That slow-motion reality has been the case, at least in the United States, since developers first applied to build the Cape Wind farm off Cape Cod, almost a decade ago now.

The status quo may be ready to change, though, in both the United States, where offshore wind's troubles have mainly been bureaucratic, and in the European Union, where equipment failures have beset turbines. As the technology develops further, financing and government attention are clearing away barriers.

On the technical side, more large companies are getting into the game. One is General Electric, which just bought ScanWind, a small Norwegian company working on drivetrains for offshore turbines. GE is hoping to cut maintenance costs in anticipation of big growth in the market over the next decade, which it expects will amount to about 30 or more gigawatts.

That's a conservative estimate compared to the one being pushed by the European Wind Energy Association, which also chose this week to release a report claiming that offshore wind could cover about 15 percent of Europe's energy needs by 2030. As evidence, the EWEA points to 100 gigawatts worth of projects already proposed in Europe.

The problem so far has been that such proposals often end up abandoned. But interest is on an upswing, especially in the United States, where the Federal Interior Department has put offshore wind at the top of its priority list.

There's also significant pressure developing within individual states. Maryland, for example, is now soliciting bids to build wind farms off the state's coastline, in hopes of meeting a 20 percent renewable energy target by 2022. Without strong prospects for other renewables like solar power, wind may offer its best opportunity, with the coastal winds offering the most reliable resource.

A bit further down the coast, developers are agitating to place turbines off North Carolina's Outer Banks, and there's also some interest in less obvious places like Lake Erie. And despite its long wait, Cape Wind does look likely to get built, with Republicans reportedly prodding President Obama to green light the project.

This probably still won't be the year that offshore wind takes off. But the stars do finally seem to be aligning, especially as the limitations of terrestrial wind turbines become more apparent.