We can take the lead in offshore wind-energy technology
Let’s face it, there are many unknowns about offshore wind energy and its ability to meaningfully contribute to our efforts to lessen dependency on fossil fuels. Despite being active in Europe and the United Kingdom for decades, offshore-wind unknowns still exist.
Questions include how to maintain a buried cable, what is the life of the wind turbines in the North Atlantic environment, and how can operators effectively store the energy created in order to smooth out the peaks and valleys associated with wind variation. The list goes on.
Locally, concerns associated with these unknowns are exacerbated by the questionable actions of the Connecticut Port Authority and the unavailability of the State Pier in New London when it becomes fully dedicated to offshore wind development.
We can get overwhelmed by the unknowns and wait for answers, or we can look at this through the eyes of an entrepreneur or researcher. These unknowns are not problems, they are opportunities. It may take time to fully realize the opportunities, but that shouldn’t stop us from making every effort to make it work.
Here in southeastern Connecticut, too much time has been spent looking at the small picture, at the problems, at the concerns. That approach risks letting the opportunities associated with the massive potential of offshore wind energy to pass us by.
Instead, let’s go big.
It is time to work with our congressional delegation and Gov. Ned Lamont and push for the creation of a National Laboratory for Offshore Wind Energy to be established in the region. One obvious choice for its location is the Avery Point Campus of the University of Connecticut in Groton or, if not there, the Fort Trumbull area in New London.
The Biden Administration and many in Congress are putting a big bet on the success of offshore wind being a major contributor to the nation’s electric grid and the creator of new, well-paying jobs. Tens of billions of dollars are being anted up in the face of the unknowns and the challenges.
The New London-Groton area is not only incredibly well situated to be able to fabricate and haul these gigantic wind machines out to ocean, but also to host a national research lab. UConn already has its Marine Sciences program at Avery Point, and the School of Engineering is pioneering work on next generation battery storage, as well as on advanced material research in composites to allow the blades to be stronger and lighter.
Adding to the region's potential to be the leader in driving offshore wind-power technology is the location of the Coast Guard Research and Development Center at Fort Trumbull. And most of the major 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 by researchers at top universities throughout New England and the Northeast. Researchers working in a national lab could coordinate with researchers at the federal level and with industry experts to help answer the unknowns, drive the industry forward, and meet the challenges that lie ahead.
A national lab in and of itself would be an economic development catalyst for the region by attracting companies that want to be nearby the latest research.
But we can do better than that.
Connected to the national lab could be a robust program for testing under real-world conditions technology developed in the laboratory. Just over the horizon will be one of the biggest offshore wind installations in the world. What would be better than for entrepreneurs, startup companies, and even the established companies to use those wind farms as test sites where innovated ideas can be evaluated in practical applications?
The national lab could develop as an accelerator program where startups from around the world come to test the cutting-edge science and engineering necessary to achieve wind-power’s full potential. The startups, in turn, could receive mentoring and business development services, while working directly with their potential clients or through joint-venture partners. Such accelerator programs are a tried-and-true method for instilling innovation in industries, as has been seen by the creativity and innovation prompted by the InsureTech accelerators in Hartford.
With the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut working hard to develop an Innovation Center in downtown New London, this accelerator program could be an anchor tenant to help move that project forward as well.
Locating a National Lab for Offshore Wind Energy in southeastern Connecticut makes too much sense not to pursue.
So, let’s go big and work to realize what is possible, before it is too late.
Bruce Carlson developed the Tech Transfer Program at the University of Connecticut and has worked with entrepreneurs and startups, and on various economic development efforts in Connecticut for the past 20 years.
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