Can New Bedford lure a turbine plant

newsletter-112-1For New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, offshore wind is “not just an industry with abstract benefits.’’ It’s a jobs creator.

The industry could support up to 70,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the North Atlantic region by 2030, with up to $14 billion-a-year’s worth of construction, operations, and maintenance, according to analysis released last month by the Department of Energy.

“These results are strongly based on the local sourcing assumptions. If more components and services were sourced locally, the numbers could increase by three to fourfold,” the analysis said.

For oft-beleaguered New Bedford, whose 13.1 percent unemployment rate is the second highest in the state, the results could also be profoundly affected by another thing: if the offshore wind industry could seduce a global turbine maker to locate its first US plant in New Bedford.

The conditions are taking shape. The Patrick administration is constructing here what would be the nation’s first port terminal built to support the delivery and installation of the gargantuan turbines. Meanwhile, Cape Wind is hurdling over its final legal obstacles for 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. And Deepwater Wind hopes to plunge 200 turbines into waters between Martha’s Vineyard and Rhode Island, though likely in 40- to 50-turbine increments.

If Cape Wind and Deepwater Wind get their “steel in the water,” as industry lingo goes, it would be historic. But a much bigger pipeline of turbines is necessary for a full-throttle industry to unfold in the state.

“You’d probably need hundreds, maybe 300, maybe 400, but you definitely need hundreds,” said Jason Folsom, the commercial head of offshore wind in the Americas for Siemens.

With Siemens being the biggest offshore wind turbine manufacturer in Europe and the future supplier of Cape Wind’s machines, he knows as much as anyone what the industry can look like. By the end of 2012, Siemens had installed nearly 1,000 turbines in European waters. It has contracts for roughly 1,250 more.

Folsom said Siemens’s worldwide operations in wind total 10,000 employees. In offshore, Folsom said it has 2,000 engineers, project managers, and sales staff in offices around the world. To show how explosive the industry is, Folsom said that, when he joined Siemens in 2008, there were only 50 offshore staff worldwide.

A coming explosion could play into New Bedford’s hands. Technology is producing bigger and more powerful machines than are currently being installed. That also means longer blades, which are crossing the 200-foot barrier. “The future of offshore is going to get harder as machines get bigger and heavier, and are put farther out to sea,” Folsom said. “It makes the timing of having components arrive at the right time even more crucial.

“At some point, to take advantage of the next generation of machines, it may be advantageous to have a plant in the US. But there has to be consistent policy that creates a consistent pipeline.”

No consistency is coming out of Washington, as fossil fuel politicians continue to fight investment and production tax credits for renewable energy. In a sane Washington, the economic argument should end the debate. By itself, the offshore port terminal will likely boost the local economy with activity associated with turbines, such as welding, cable laying and maintenance. But a plant that actually makes turbines here could lure even more firms and create a supply chain.

Onshore wind in the Midwest has taken off on such a scale that Siemens has several hundred people in turbine plants in Fort Madison, Iowa, and Hutchinson, Kan. Despite layoff cycles amidst the uncertainty of federal policy, production is strong enough that those plants today make blades for export to Canada and South America.

“The US can catch up if it wants,” Folsom said about offshore wind. “But there comes a point where you are a participant only or a participant and producer.” New Bedford’s hopes with a port terminal are already bright. The future would be brighter if the offshore machines were made here.

Derrick Z. Jackson
Boston Globe, Columnist
NOVEMBER 09, 2013

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