OPINION: Alla Weinstein

It’s been a long time coming, but we may be witnessing a sea change — literally.

Offshore wind in the US could finally be taking off. After all the discussion and the lofty policy goals, the Department of Energy (DOE) has put taxpayer dollars in play with the award of $28m to seven demonstration projects at the end of last year.

Each project has received up to $4m to conduct preliminary engineering and develop detailed plans for getting steel in the water and turbines spinning by the close of 2017.

Four of the projects are on the eastern seaboard, one is in the Gulf of Mexico and one is in Lake Erie. The seventh — Principle Power’s 30MW WindFloat Pacific Project — is to be installed 24km off Coos Bay, Oregon. No gimmicks, no promises, but a credible path to deliver on real commitments.

And so the race is on, as only three of the seven original projects will be selected by the DOE to move forward and receive additional funding of up to $43m each.

These awards for demonstration projects just may be that bold step that is required for the US to jump-start a domestic industry that can deliver vast amounts of clean energy, create significant numbers of jobs and revitalise coastal communities.

After the constant to-ing and fro-ing over the Cape Wind project and the never-ending debate about the production tax credit, we are making measureable progress at last.

We’re all familiar with the figures: oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface, and some studies even suggest that less than 1% of the oceans’ potential renewable energy could satisfy the planet’s demand, five times over.

Cutting through the noise, the main question is: can offshore wind be cost-competitive? I feel it can, and sooner than you might think — with the disclaimer that we will need innovation and a steep industrial learning curve. So it is up to the entrepreneurs and the government to push commercialisation of new technologies that can deliver renewable energy on competitive terms with fossil fuels.

Onshore wind has been an undisputed success story, but it is bumping up against several problems that cannot be ignored.

For all the US’s vast size and wide open spaces, most of the best locations near population centres have already been developed. Those sites that have not yet been developed often face transmission and permitting challenges. Last but not least, not everyone enjoys the sight of wind turbines from his or her backyard.

Now let’s look at the advantages of moving offshore. Start with the resource. Even leaving aside Alaska and Hawaii, the continental US has more than 6,000km of Atlantic and Gulf coastline, and 2,100km of Pacific coast. And that’s before you take into account the 7,300km of Great Lakes shoreline. It’s a lot of real estate, much of it prime.

Then consider that average wind speeds are higher and more consistent than on land, offering capacity factors in excess of 50%. Here’s what it boils down to: offshore wind can produce more energy with fewer machines placed out of sight of the shore.

Admittedly, we have a lot of catching-up to do. Europe embraced offshore wind two decades ago, and in the past six or seven years, the EU has begun getting serious about strategic policy.

Now it is America’s turn. We have the industrial muscle, the know-how and, at last, we seem to be developing the political will and long-term vision that have been such an important driver for the European industry.

Principle Power welcomes the challenge and the opportunity. Our WindFloat, a floating semi-submersible support structure, is designed to allow the installation of offshore wind farms regardless of water depth and without using specialised heavy-lift construction equipment. The entire structure is assembled and commissioned onshore, then towed to site.

The first installation of a full-scale WindFloat outfitted with a Vestas V80-2.0MW turbine was completed in October 2011, 5km off the Portuguese coast. In the past year, it has delivered more than 4GWh to the grid. Now we are gearing up for the WindFloat Pacific Project, which will use five WindFloat systems outfitted with Siemens 6MW turbines.

We believe the WindFloat represents a paradigm shift: a transformational product capable of changing every facet of the supply, cost and delivery equation. At Principle Power, we like to say that we can create the future of offshore wind, one project at a time. This is our chance to prove it.

Alla Weinstein is president and chief executive of Seattle’s Principle Power

This piece was published as part of the Thought Leaders series. Recharge’s Thought Leaders’ Club brings together leading thinkers and participants from the renewable energy sector to examine the key challenges facing our industry