Let’s face it, there are many unknowns about offshore wind energy and its ability to make meaningful contributions to our efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Although it has been active in Europe and the UK for decades, there are still unknowns in the offshore wind space.
Questions include how to maintain an underground cable, the life of wind turbines in the North Atlantic environment, and how can operators effectively store the energy generated to smooth out the peaks and valleys associated with wind swings. The list goes on.
On the ground, concerns about these unknowns are compounded by the questionable actions of the Connecticut Port Authority and the unavailability of the State Pier in New London when fully dedicated to offshore wind development.
We can let the unknown overwhelm us and wait for answers, or we can look at it through the eyes of an entrepreneur or researcher. These unknowns are not problems, they are opportunities. It may take some time to take full advantage of the opportunities, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing everything we can to make it work.
Too much time has been spent looking at the little pictures, the problems, the worries, here in southeast Connecticut. There is a risk that the opportunities associated with the enormous potential of offshore wind energy will pass us by.
Let’s go big instead.
It is time to work with our Congress delegation and Governor Ned Lamont to advance the creation of a National Offshore Wind Energy Laboratory in the region. An obvious choice for its location is the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton or, if not, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London.
The Biden administration and many in Congress are betting a big bet on the success of offshore wind power, which is an important contributor to the country’s electricity grid and the creation of new, well-paying jobs. Dozens of billions of dollars are spent in the face of the unknown and the challenges.
The New London-Groton area is incredibly well located not only to manufacture these gigantic wind machines and transport them into the sea, but also to house a national research laboratory. UConn already has its Marine Science program at Avery Point, and the School of Engineering is pioneering next-generation battery storage and advanced materials research in composite materials to make rotor blades stronger and lighter.
The location of the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Fort Trumbull contributes to the region’s potential to be a leader in offshore wind technology. And most of the big players in the industry – Ørsted, Equinor, Vineyard Wind – have partnerships and offices in Connecticut.
The New London-Groton area is centrally located and easily accessible for researchers at top universities across New England and the North East. Researchers working in a national laboratory could coordinate with federal researchers and industry experts to answer the unknown, advance the industry, and address the challenges ahead.
A national laboratory in itself would be a catalyst for the region’s economic development by attracting companies that want to be close to the latest research.
But we can do better.
Connected to the national laboratory could be a robust program of real-world testing technology developed in the laboratory. One of the largest offshore wind turbines in the world will be built just beyond the horizon. What could be better than using these wind farms as test locations for entrepreneurs, start-ups and even established companies, at which innovative ideas can be evaluated in practice?
The national laboratory could evolve into an accelerator program where startups from around the world test the cutting edge science and engineering skills required to realize the full potential of wind power. The startups, in turn, could receive mentoring and business development services while working directly with their prospects or through joint venture partners. Such accelerator programs are a proven way to encourage innovation in industries, such as the creativity and innovation brought about by the InsureTech Hartford accelerator.
With the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce hard at work developing a hub of innovation in downtown New London, this accelerator program could be an anchor tenant to help advance this project as well.
Establishing a National Lab for Offshore Wind Energy in southeast Connecticut makes too much sense to ignore.
So, let’s go big and work to see what’s possible before it’s too late.
Bruce Carlson developed the Tech transfer program from the University of Connecticut and has worked with entrepreneurs, startups and various Connecticut economic development efforts for the past 20 years.