By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — “Spin, baby, spin” was the mantra of this week’s Northeast Offshore Wind Summit. Sponsored by the state Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the two-day event convened offshore wind developers, turbine and cable companies, unions, economic planners and coastal managers to hash out a vision for making the region a nucleus for this up-and-coming "green" industry.
There was a heady feel in the air as participants celebrated the attributes that put Rhode Island and Massachusetts at the forefront of the nation's offshore wind industry. With the best offshore wind speeds in the nation, proximity to energy-hungry population centers and availability of protected deepwater ports such as Quonset and New Bedford, southern New England is poised to become the launching site for a "green" energy revolution.
But even with the Deepwater Wind and Cape Wind projects expected to begin construction next year, participants stressed that it will take some prodding to help Rhode Island make the most of its wind assets. That’s because economic development hinges not just on harvesting the wind, but also on attracting companies that manufacture and repair the turbines, cables, and other components that make this harvest possible.
“It’s all about the supply chain,” said Greg Watson, a state advisor for clean energy technology in Massachusetts. “The supply chain is our key to economic development activities when it comes to offshore wind.” With 3,500 component parts in a wind turbine, it’s easy to imagine why.
However, supply chain companies at the conference indicated that one or two small wind farms would not persuade them to set up shop in Rhode Island. “We would have to see a viable pipeline before investing,” said Robert Schubert of Siemens. His company would require plans for thousands of megawatts of wind power over 15 to 20 years in order to invest in manufacturing here. Unfortunately, he added, “No state is yet talking about that kind of volume.”
Even if large-scale projects are still years away, the summit left no doubt that Rhode Island is moving in the right direction.
Participants celebrated Rhode Island’s recent release of its Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), which will be a key driver of the offshore wind industry in the state. Grover Fugate, leader of the agency that conducted the SAMP, said, “Marine spatial planning can be used to jump-start a project.” An offshore wind farm, he added, offers “front-loading” for the permitting process by providing clarity for developers.
Charles Natale, president of the ESS Group Inc., agreed, saying the SAMP, “provides regulatory certainty for the market, and regulatory certainty drives permitting, which drives investment, which drives growth, which drives jobs.”
Other speakers stressed the need to engage more states and the federal government in large-scale planning. “State innovation has been driving this industry,” said Fara Courtney of the U.S. Offshore Wind Collaborative. Courtney said a fragmented approach to development has states competing against each other to attract investment. “It needs to be a regional industry,” added Jeff Fuchs of General Electric, “because if any state tried to do this on its own, it would be severely challenged.”
To that point, Rhode Island is already making progress. Last July, Gov. Donald Carcieri signed an agreement with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, pledging cooperation and coordination between the two states in the development of offshore wind energy within the SAMP. Currently, planners from both states are studying potential locations.
The summit also showcased the business know-how and creativity that will be needed to reach Rhode Island’s goal of becoming an offshore wind pioneer. “It’s all about jobs and economic development,” said Jim Lanard of the Offshore Wind Development Coalition. But, he also noted, “it’s a romantic field to be in for a lot of us.”
Nevertheless, this week’s summit proved to be one more step toward unleashing both the economic and inspirational potential of a clean, "green" source of energy off the Rhode Island coast.