Chain of Thought

Everyone Knows It's Windy

Establishing wind power on the Great Lakes will take more than a lot of hot (and cold) air.

I recently attended a conference on wind power manufacturing, which had as its theme “Making It Here” (i.e., in the U.S.). Not only was the conference on a particularly relevant topic for supply chain professionals, but it was literally across the street from my office, meaning I expended virtually no resources in traveling to the event (other than negligible shoe leather).

One particularly interesting session was on the topic of offshore wind tower production. The blades for these wind turbines, as well as the towers themselves, are so huge that entire cottage industries are emerging along Great Lakes shorelines to produce, transport, install and maintain these huge structures. This leads to some very unique supply chain and logistics challenges.

For instance, manufacturing companies are jockeying to set up their facilities as close to the waterfront as possible. These blades and towers are so long – well over 100 feet long in some cases – that it requires numerous different types of vessels to move these structures to an offshore installation – tugs, barges, cable-laying vessels, installation vessels, crew transport vessels, and operations & maintenance vessels. And that doesn't count the transportation – generally exceptionally long flatbed trailers – needed to get the blades to the shore in the first place.

Offshore wind is already a big business overseas, especially in the North Sea, and the lure for U.S. companies is that “the amount of wind power in the Great Lakes region alone has the potential to power the entire United States,” according to Lorry Wagner, president of Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCO). The wind industry is hoping to tap into that potential and make it a reality, though there are any number of hurdles to get past for that to happen. One huge hurdle is the need for funds, and that was at least somewhat addressed earlier this year when a $50.5 million program led by the Departments of Energy and Interior was announced.

“If we can repeat just a small shadow of what Europe has planned in the way of offshore wind power, we'll have a new multi-billion dollar domestic industry, with the potential to create tens of thousands of new jobs just in domestic offshore wind alone,” predicts Chris Wissemann, general manager of Freshwater Wind. Getting to that point, though, will require a sustained policy at the federal and state levels. “Sustained policy transformed wind and solar from niche technologies to big business and lower-cost power,” Wissemann points out, “and offshore wind needs a similar efort.”

The offshore wind industry faces four primary challenges, observes Scott Viciana, vice president of Ventower Industries, a manufacturer of wind turbine towers:

1. the creation of jobs

2. lowering the cost of energy generated by wind

3. encouraging investment

4. creating an industry and a supply chain to support that industry.

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