Powerful ally joins battle for Cape Cod -- America's first offshore wind station a step closer to reality

General Electric's bold centre-stage entry in the bitter controversy over the largest wind project yet proposed in the United States has added a new dimension to a high profile power play which has some of the nation's top politicians playing the lead roles. With GE picked as equipment supplier for the Cape Cod offshore wind station, the project's opponents -- among them Senators Ted Kennedy and John Warner -- are suddenly up against a force to be reckoned with. GE is serious. "Our involvement with this project could be anything from turbines to turnkey," says the head of GE Wind, Steve Zwolinski.

So far the offshore project, America's first, has been fronted by its relatively small developer, Boston-based Cape Wind Associates. But besieged Cape Wind boss Jim Gordon is no longer alone. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a confident Zwolinski on January 21, he was part of a joint announcement naming GE as the supplier of 130 of its 3.6 MW wind turbine model, to be operational off Cape Cod in 2005.

The project, now increased from 420 MW to 468 MW, has been in detailed planning for months by Cape Wind (Windpower Monthly, September 2002). The developer's partner, Energy Management Inc, also headed by Gordon, has worked with GE for 20 years and together they have built a number of natural gas-fired power plants.

Negotiating scope

"We've been selected as equipment supplier. That said, we're still negotiating the scope of the breakdowns. We're not financing this at all," says Zwolinski. "But we are working with Jim Gordon and his team to decide the best split between us." Through its parent company, GE Wind can provide a huge range of the specialist services needed to install the turbines offshore.

Indeed, GE appears to be gearing up for a major nationwide push to legitimise the wind industry as a serious energy option. Just before the Cape Cod announcement the company began a nationwide advertising campaign, changing its more than two-decade-old slogan from "We bring good things to life" to "Imagination at Work." The advertising features a picture of Edison thinking, among other things, about wind turbines.

The respected 120-year old international energy and technology company has the clout to help smooth out some of the public relations nightmares that have plagued the Cape Cod offshore development. "This is certainly bringing in the big guns," says Larry Rosenberg of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the authority dealing with the application to site the turbines on Horseshoe Shoal, off Cape Cod's southern shore.

Moratorium furore

It is the selection of this site that has sparked such a political furore. Last month serious efforts were made by politicians, Kennedy among them, to persuade the United States Congress to place a national moratorium on all offshore wind development, with the aim of preventing the proper authorities from considering a permit for Cape Cod (story page 49). The action did not go unnoticed by other politicians pressing for America to clean up its energy use and reduce its reliance on oil imports for reasons of national security. The wind turbines will be just visible from the south shore of Cape Cod, summer destination of many of America's most influential and wealthy families, including the Kennedys.

The use of a wind turbine as large as 3.6 MW has reduced the number of turbines and thus the footprint of the project from about 28 square miles to about 24 square miles, a fact made much of by Gordon: it will place the wind plant further from the shore. Cape Wind is also arguing that although the plan is now for a 468 MW plant, the project has not grown. Power delivered will never exceed the originally planned 420 MW, due to line and wake losses, says the company's Mark Rogers.


The announcement of GE's involvement and smaller footprint is meeting mixed reviews on Cape Cod. "Good," says state representative Matthew Patrick. "This should help. Of course, some people still won't be convinced." Patrick's opponent, Larry Wheatley, is one of them. He says the reduced footprint -- from 170 turbines to 130 -- will make no difference to his voters: "We don't want it. Period." More generally, local residents are a bit nonplussed, with some expressing fears about being bulldozed by commercial interests.

"There are groups here on the Cape who support the project, but we have our concerns as well. We want to be able to exercise some control and input into the project ourselves, and we want to be the direct beneficiaries of this clean energy," says Episcopal priest William Eddy. Maggie Geist, head of the influential Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, says that GE's entry, while impressive, raises concerns. She charges that Cape Wind has been very unresponsive to working with local environmental groups to make the project more palatable to the public. "Politically, this project is a nightmare," Geist stresses. "The community should receive some benefits -- financial or otherwise -- from this proposal."

Most national environmental groups, while reserving judgement on the Cape Cod project, have come out in favour of offshore wind in general. They say that GE's implicit support will provide a huge boost to the nascent US industry. "GE has a special level of legitimacy because they traditionally manufactured turbines for gas-fired plants. They clearly see that wind is worth committing to," says Deborah Donovan of the New England Clean Energy Campaign for the well-respected Union of Concerned Scientists.

The technology

GE's 3.6 MW turbine, specially developed for offshore applications, is barely six months old. There is only one in operation, a prototype connected to the grid in Spain in September. Zwolinski says it has performed well and the company is considering manufacturing something that may produce even more power, while retaining the same size platform. GE has the ability to engineer efficiency into wind turbines, he says.

"This 3.6 is fairly conservatively designed," adds Zwolinski. "The industry as a whole has to get more competitive to power generation in general. Most governments are unwilling to support a super-high subsidy rate. The industry has to get more competitive with conventional sources across the world. If that were done, a lot of other projects currently on the fence will become very viable."

Offshore elsewhere

The first use of the 3.6 MW turbine offshore will not be at Cape Cod but in the Irish Sea south of Dublin this summer. Here GE is erecting seven machines in the first 25 MW phase of Irish company Airtricity's huge 520 MW Arklow Banks development. GE is also slated as supplier of 30 turbines for a project at Gunfleet Sands off the Essex coast at Clacton, south east of England. The project developer, GE Gunfleet Ltd, recently lodged a formal application for development of the site after successfully completing early permit requirements.

GE Wind has previous experience under its former Enron nameplate as equipment supplier for one offshore wind farm, the Utgrunden wind station in Sweden (cover picture) made up of seven of GE's 1.5 MW workhorse. The Utgrunden turbines have been running for two years in eastern Sweden.