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The Wind Industry Is Floating Away, and It's for the Best

By Scott Levine - Mar 6, 2014 at 2:37PM

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Offshore wind is coming to the U.S., but it may still be out of sight.

The offshore wind energy numbers are staggering. So, let's simplify them.

Over 4,000,000 MW is equal to over 4,000 GW, and over 4,000 GW is equal to more than four times the generating capacity of all U.S. electric power plants. That's all available offshore -- within 50 nautical miles of the coast -- and the U.S. Department of the Interior recently took a step toward realizing some of this potential.

Into the Pacific
Earlier in February, the Department of the Interior granted approval to a Seattle-based company, Principle Power, which developed a ballast system that buoys wind turbines for a novel project. Secured by anchors, the turbines are able to be located as far away as 20 miles offshore. The planned 30 MW floating wind farm has an estimated cost of $200 million. Five Siemens ( SIEGY -0.81% ) 6 MW turbines will be located about 15 miles off of the Oregon coast. Connected by underwater cable, the turbines are expected to provide power to the grid by 2017.

Source: Principle Power/ Windfloat Pacific

This isn't Principle Power's first project in deploying floating wind turbines. In 2012, the company installed a Vestas ( VWDRY -2.96% ) v80 2.0MW turbine 5 km off the coast of Portugal. Having successfully demonstrated the viability of the technology, Principle Power and the other parties in the joint venture are considering the next phase of the project: a greater than 25 MW pre-commercial array of turbines.

What's the big deal?
For a country that has no installed offshore wind capacity, it may seem overreaching to consider the development of floating wind turbines, but there are a number of advantages. For one, since the turbines do not have to be bolted to the seabed, they are able to be installed in locations where depth is not an issue, reducing significant installation costs. Habib Dhager, director of the University of Maine's Advanced Structures & Composites Center, is leading a project using a 12 MW turbine located off the Maine coast. Arguing for the advantages of floating turbines, Dhager says that doing away with the need to rent jack-up barges and cranes will save companies tens of millions of dollars, as the final assembly of the turbines occurs onshore.

By locating them out of sight, developers will avoid the complaints (and possible litigation) that seem to be inextricably linked to offshore wind projects. Donald Trump made waves in his opposition to an offshore wind farm located off of the Scotland coast -- a location which, according to Trump, would be an eyesore from his Aberdeen golf course. Closer to home, complaints arose over the Cape Wind project located in Nantucket Sound. William Koch, arguing that the facility would be "visual pollution" has donated over $5 million in an attempt to prevent the development of the project.

Old seadogs...
Who will benefit from the adoption of floating wind turbines? Siemens, supplier of the Principle Power project, is an obvious one. Having won a contract for America's largest onshore wind farm to date, Siemens is well-positioned to succeed in the U.S., but its global performance in this sector is also on the rise. According to the European Wind Energy Association, at the end of 2013 Siemens was the dominant leader for cumulative offshore installations with 60% of total capacity. For the most recently reported quarter, Siemens grew its wind power segment profit by 20% year over year, and the profit margin for the same period rose from 4.6% to 4.8%. Orders are also on the rise: For the quarter they grew 94% year over year -- from 1,162 to 2,258.  

Also a major player in the space is Vestas, which accounts for 23% of cumulative European offshore installations. Unlike the electronics and electrical engineering giant Siemens, Vestas solely operates in the wind industry. Without offshore installations, Vestas still prospers from its operations in the U.S. Growing its order intake 60% in 2013 over 2012, the company says it was "primarily driven by pick-up in the USA and new wind markets."

Unlike Siemens and Vestas, GE ( GE -2.58% ) is not a major player in European offshore wind installations -- it only has 0.5% of total installed capacity. Nonetheless, the company is a major player in wind turbine manufacturing. For the last quarter, the company saw equipment orders rise 81% in its power and water segment --  a rise which it attributes to "strong Thermal and Wind orders." Wind revenue also grew 6%. Looking to the future, GE is looking to use part of the $10 billion Ecomagination initiative for reducing the cost and increasing the output of its wind turbines.

Foolish takeaway
I, like many others, believe that we've reached the point where the widespread adoption of renewable energy is no longer "just around the corner." Innovations such as floating wind turbines are a testament to the fact that wind energy, like solar, are viable options for new power capacity. Vestas is a more aggressive approach to investing in the industry, but the potential for large gains is definitely there. Investors will have to dig deeper to see which company is most appropriate for them.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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Stocks Mentioned

General Electric Company Stock Quote
General Electric Company
$92.77 (-2.58%) $-2.46
Siemens Aktiengesellschaft Stock Quote
Siemens Aktiengesellschaft
$83.04 (-0.81%) $0.68
Vestas Wind Systems Stock Quote
Vestas Wind Systems
$10.16 (-2.96%) $0.31

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