A series of setbacks has stalled wind energy projects along the coasts of North America and in the Great Lakes, leaving this continent far behind Europe in the use of offshore turbines as a power source.
The latest disappointment for offshore wind proponents was the demise of Cape Wind, a massive and controversial project that would have seen 130 huge turbines in the ocean off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. After a 14-year fight with opponents – including billionaire Bill Koch – the project appeared to have finally passed all its legal hurdles. But in January, two utilities that had agreed to purchase much of the power cancelled contracts when the project missed a financing deadline.
Cape Wind isn't officially dead, but the future is bleak for what would have been the first major offshore wind farm in the United States.
In Canada, a number of potential projects are also having trouble getting off the ground.
For almost a decade, Naikun Wind Energy Group Inc. of Vancouver has been planning a 400-megawatt project with dozens of turbines in the Hecate Strait, between Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert, off the coast of British Columbia. It has environmental approvals in hand, but still lacks a power-purchase contract from the provincial utility.
Naikun's big hope is LNG. If the plants planned for the B.C. coast come to fruition, there will be huge demand for new electricity sources, and that will force the government's hand. "I'm very optimistic," said Naikun president Michael O'Connor. "We are dead centre where the [LNG] load is."
On the East Coast, Beothuk Energy Inc. is planning a 30-turbine, 180-megawatt wind farm in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off the west coast of Newfoundland. But it needs "some real political will" from the provincial government to make it happen, president Kirby Mercer said. A planned merger with a small public company would have given Beothuk access to public financing markets, but was cancelled at the beginning of February. Mr. Mercer said there are other potential means of raising funds. The need for new sources of electricity, combined with Newfoundland's expertise with offshore platforms, should help get the project to fruition, he hopes.
On the Great Lakes, several projects to build offshore wind farms were cut off at the knees in 2011 when the Ontario government put a moratorium on offshore development as it headed into an election. That sudden move not only stopped projects in their tracks, it caused a flurry of messy litigation.
Trillium Power Wind Corp., which was about to sign a financing arrangement for a wind farm in Lake Ontario near Kingston, filed a lawsuit against the government that is still before the courts. Windstream Energy Inc., which also had a project planned near Kingston and had already obtained a contract from the power authority, filed a NAFTA claim on behalf of its American investors. That has now gone to arbitration.
Ontario has commissioned more studies on offshore wind, but it will be many months before it decides whether to drop the moratorium.
All the delays have left North America without a single offshore project. By contrast, the European business is booming. Offshore wind capacity more than doubled between 2011 and 2014, and is now over 8 gigawatts, according to Global Wind Energy Council figures released last week. That's enough electricity to power two million homes.
Britain has by far the most offshore turbines, with almost 4.5 gigawatts of capacity, half the world's total. It is followed by Denmark, Germany and Belgium.
British based research firm GlobalData says offshore wind power production will quintuple to about 40 gigawatts by 2020, with most of the gains coming in Britain, Germany and China. Essentially, government programs and "good offshore wind potential" are what's driving the growth in Europe, said Pranav Srivastava, GlobalData's power analyst. In North America – unlike Europe – there is still lots of land available for onshore wind projects, he noted, and there is also a "lack of strong policy support to push for more expensive offshore wind power technology."
Naikun's Mr. O'Connor also noted that the ocean off Britain and other parts of Europe is much shallower than along most of the North American coast, making it easier to build turbine bases. And, he said, Europeans seem more willing to accept the "social impact" of turbines, which he acknowledged "are big and prominent and change the landscape and seascape."
Canada will get eventually some projects, Mr. O'Connor said. "Technologies have improved and costs have dramatically dropped" for offshore turbines, making them more competitive even in the North American environment, he said. And great wind resources exist in certain specific locations, including where his project is planned. Once Naikun gets a power contract, "we could have turbines spinning in 3 1/2 or four years," he said. "We have a spectacular resource that has value and is going to get built."
With Cape Wind stalled, the first North American offshore project likely to be built is at Block Island off Rhode Island, where developers have a power purchase contract in place. The small five-turbine project is expected to be completed in 2016.