US offshore struggles to keep head above water


February 2, 2015

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This was meant to be the year US offshore wind happened. Finally, a developer would put up a wind turbine in US waters and signal to investors that US offshore wind has arrived.

But the first month of 2015 has cast severe doubts over that.

Early last year the proposed 468MW Cape Wind offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound secured $1bn funding from the Danish export credit agency EKF, French bank Natixis and Dutch bank Rabobank. Back then, we got the feeling offshore construction on this flagship project might actually begin this year.

Now the project has taken three big steps back and the question is not whether it happens in 2015 but whether it happens at all.

First, energy companies National Grid and NStar are looking to end deals to respectively buy 50% and 27.5% of the project’s energy output. The companies said Cape Wind had missed a December deadline to secure funding and begin construction, but Cape Wind said the terminations are invalid. We now expect legal action.

Second, Cape Wind was suspended from New England’s wholesale electricity market due to the uncertainty around the project, although Cape Wind has dismissed this as a concern by saying it would be qualified on the market well before completion.

And third, Cape Wind has pulled out of deals to buy land and facilities that were set to be a staging and assembly area for the project. Cape Wind has not commented on the reason.

These problems all stem from delays to the project caused by long-running legal action led by fossil fuel billionaires the Koch brothers. They may not have won the argument against Cape Wind —indeed, they lost a series of legal battles last year — but they kept the dispute going long enough for the scheme to flounder.

It is a sobering reminder for firms planning to invest in US offshore wind that the sector’s detractors have deep pockets. Winning the argument, as Cape Wind has done thus far, isn’t always enough.

There are two other projects vying to be the first US offshore wind farm: the 25MW project planned by Fishermen’s Energy off Atlantic City, where the developer is in March set to appeal a refusal for the project by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities; and Deepwater Wind’s 30MW Block Island, where work is due to start this year.

It would be good to see work begin on these, but neither would have the same impact as Cape Wind. Each is less than 7% the size of Cape Wind and, as a result, they do not look like utility-scale energy solutions for the US. They look more like curiosities.

The good news is that the government is trying to drum up interest but investors are growing tired.

The US federal Bureau of Offshore Energy Management last week started an auction for four sites totalling 742,000 acres south of Rhode Island that could accommodate 5GW of offshore wind.

However, the level of interest was low, with two sites failing to attract any bids; and the other two, won by RES Americas and OffshoreMW, going for low prices. However, given Cape Wind’s problems firms now seem to be asking: why bother?

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