The supply chain question: Can Maine compete?

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Maine’s wind-energy leaders know they are in a race — one where the clock has already been ticking for 10 years.

But they need look no farther than 150 miles north of the state’s border at Van Buren to Quebec’s Gaspe’ Peninsula for a  model of wind-energy development.

Efforts in that region have not only added a bolt of new green energy generation, but also incubated a supply chain of hard goods prompting a manufacturing renaissance and an injection of foreign investment from Denmark and Germany, the countries leading the wind-energy development race in Europe.

“There is no question that Quebec is an international leader in the development of energy,” says John Kerry, the director of Maine’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.

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In the last five years, the Gaspe’ region has installed more than 620 megawatts of wind-powered generation. That compares to about 200 megawatts installed in Maine over the same period.

Through government policy, incentives and funding, the region has established a half dozen manufacturing enterprises, many of which also ship their products — including wind turbine blades, towers and generator housings, called nacelles — to the U.S. and other places around the globe, including China, South America and parts of Europe, the world’s fastest growing wind-energy market.

Beyond that the region is known as a developer of technology, including cold-weather construction and  turbine blade fabrication.

Being able to carve out a niche in the giant global supply chain of a booming business is tricky, but in Maine’s favor are a multitude of factors, Kerry says.

“We are behind, but we have the capacity to catch up,” Kerry says.

To that end a coalition of private Maine businesses, the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center and the Maine Port Authority formed to highlight what is already available here and to recruit new talent and investment to the state.

Known as the Maine Wind Energy Initiative, which includes 11 private companies, including large employers like Bath Iron Works and Cianbro Corp, was in Dallas this past week during an American Wind Energy Association conference.

The group had a special kiosk on the exhibit hall floor to show off the state’s available workforce, its wind resource and the progress already being made by university and private researchers.

The state was twice mentioned by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Cathy Zoi, during the conference’s keynote address, according to Steve Von Vogt, the executive director the Maine Composite Alliance.

The focus was the state’s leadership  role in developing off-shore wind energy and, while Maine now has close to 20 land-based wind farms either online or in the development stages, one of the state’s best chances to secure a slice of the global wind-energy market may be in developing and advancing off-shore technologies, says Von Vogt.

Part of the research and development will be fueled by a recent $25 million federal grant to the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.  U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu  are expected to tour the facility in June, according to a recent release from Collins’office.

“I believe that deepwater, offshore wind has enormous potential to help us meet our nation’s electricity needs and to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Collins said in a prepared statement announcing the visit.

Kerry notes Maine’s fossil fuel habit — 90 percent of our homes are heated with oil or natural gas — costs the state an average of $5 billion a year.

That’s $5 billion out of the state’s economy, most of it going to foreign companies, a December 2009 report from Kerry’s office to the Legislature shows.

“Talk about a tax on the economy,” Kerry says.

Sectors of growth

Everything from composite technologies for deep-water wind turbine components, including turbine towers and blades, to the building of ships specially designed to maintain these at-sea wind farms, to software specific to operating wind farms are possible sectors for growth in Maine.

“When anybody thinks of wind-energy jobs they often think only of the maintenance or construction side of building a facility, the image of somebody crawling around up there on the outside of the turbine is what comes to mind,”  Von Vogt said.

But the bulk of green energy jobs are more likely to be found in the manufacturing, engineering and consulting side of building a wind farm, either at sea or on land, Von Vogt said.

“The supply chain is complex, but it’s very important for the long-term growth of our economy,” says Von Vogt, who is also a director of the Maine Wind Energy Initiative.

A 47-page joint report on employment opportunities issued by the initiative and Von Vogt’s composite alliance in January of 2010 concludes: “Without establishing a full supply chain that includes turbine and tower manufacturing, the employment opportunities in Maine will be limited.”

The report further states: “Full advantage of the wind energy opportunity can only be taken if the full supply chain or at least the key factors (i.e. turbine manufacturing) have a local presence in Maine.”

Von Vogt says, in forming the coalition, organizers discovered there were already companies active in the industry or with expertise in wind-industry related fields. “It has helped us to see all we have out there already and where we can go,” he says. “Maine is actual well-positioned in areas that I wasn’t aware of before. We have to figure out what our competitive advantages are and, if we develop the resource, we also need to benefit from it in terms of the supply chain.”

Estimates on the number of jobs that could come from creating this manufacturing supply chain range from 15,000 to 25,000 but, so far, Maine cannot claim any companies are actively manufacturing and exporting components for the wind-power industry.

And the transition or diversification of Maine companies, already successful in other industrial sectors, like shipbuilding and heavy construction, makes perfect sense, says Catherine Renault, director of the Maine Office of Innovation, a division of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.

“We know from the experience in Europe that if you build the parts you can have a very significant industry” Renault says. “We know how to build big things that have to go in the ocean, so who cares if they are lying down or standing up.”

Still, obstacles both in state and federal regulation exist, including a federal permitting and siting process for off-shore wind projects that can take up to eight years to complete, Renault says.

Siting farms in Maine can be more problematic. Kerry points out population densities here, while among the lowest in New England, are still bigger than parts of rural Canada.

Fewer people usually means fewer conflicts over locating farms, he says.

Also the pace of development and ongoing growth in wind-energy manufacturing sector in other countries, including Canada and those in Europe and Asia, means Maine and the U.S. needs to move quickly.

The United Kingdom, for example,  was “late to the game” when it came to developing a manufacturing sector for renewable energy, Renault says.

“Because the industry had established itself in northern Europe they could import components, but were not in a good position to establish manufacturing facilities as well,” Renault says. “We (in Maine) are all concerned about the time frame because it’s a very competitive environment.”

That said, Maine’s state and federal lawmakers have not been idle and many, like Von Vogt and others in his coalition in both the private and public sector, have been working furiously on the supply chain issue. 

Meanwhile, Maine Gov. John Baldacci has made renewable energy a key focal point of his administration, and has devoted resources to its development, she says.

Policy changes that allowed for streamlined permitting of wind farms in almost all of the state covered by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection have also helped accelerate wind-energy development. Some of that effort is starting to show as each year additional generating capacity from wind comes online, she says.

But, all working on the issue are aiming to position Maine in an even more competitive position, Renault says.

That the state is now being recognized as a leader in the field is heartening, she says.

“We’ve gotten Maine on the map,” Renault said. “The developers and people who build turbines, they know we have really good winds.”

The state may not be a giant in the global market, but even a portion of that global market share would be a giant boost for the state’s economy long hammered by exiting manufacturing industries, many of them tied to Maine’s natural resources, she says.

Policies in place in Quebec, especially like ones requiring up to 60 percent of the materials and content for all wind farms developed in the province come from sources within the region and one that requires the kilowatt costs from wind be at par with other prominent energy sources like hydro-power, work when the wind resource is good enough that developers are virtually guaranteed profitable returns on their investments, both Renault and Von Vogt say.

Even more aggressive goals for production may be needed, and a long-term commitment to green energy from policy and lawmakers is key, Von Vogt says.

Texas, for example, has set the goal that 20 percent of all energy produced in the state will come from the wind, Von Vogt says.

“I think Maine can and will have to get to that stage,” he says.”We are at the end of the pipeline and now is the time for us to figure out how to get to the beginning of the pipeline.”

Kerry paints a cup half-full scenario, largely because Maine’s wind resource — especially offshore — is valuable and unique. Weather research shows the Gulf of Maine has some of the most consistently steady winds in the U.S.

That’s worth enough that it should draw foreign investment, both on the generation side and the manufacturing side, if state and federal policy makers can act quickly and adeptly enough to allow that potential to blossom.

Other pluses for Maine:

• a well-motivated and available workforce;

• two state universities focusing on green-energy production, composites and technology development and technicaland engineering skills for workers;

• recent approval and announced funding for a major transmission line upgrade;

• large federal government-backing for university research; and

• recently passed state legislation authorizing the Maine Public Utilities Commission to  put out “requests for proposals” for up to 25 megawatts of deepwater wind energy

These factors and others should all add up to positive economic news, Kerry says.

“There’s an awful lot that’s right in the state of Maine,” he says.

Still Quebec’s relatively unified position on green energy and it’s long-term determination to reach it’s goals are an enlightening story for Maine, he says.

“The province of Quebec has a system to develop energy and they are sticking with it and they are  making great progress because they have stuck with their plan and that’s a great lesson for us,” Kerry says.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

Here the German wind-energy company, REpower,  installs a 5 megawatt turbine in the North Sea, 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) off the coast of Scotland in 45 meters (147 feet) of water.

Everything from ships that tend at-sea wind farms to the support towers, turbine blades, computer software and other types off goods  for the industry could and should be developed in Maine, state and industry officials are saying.

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