Clean Energy and the U.S. Handicap: One Man’s Story
On-again, off-again federal support cripples emerging industries in the United States, America’s pre-eminent wind energy pioneer believes.
Jim Dehlsen, America’s most successful wind power innovator and entrepreneur, has been tilting at windmills since the early 1980s.
Back then, he installed one of the largest wind farms in the world in the mountains near Mojave, Calif., where a strong gust could snap a windmill blade in two. He called it his “Victory Garden.”
Today, at 73, Dehlsen is producing one of the most advanced and efficient windmills in the world, employing 300 people at a plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And he is building a plant in England to manufacture the largest offshore windmill in the world, creating 500 green jobs.
Like Don Quixote of La Mancha, the errant knight of windmill fame, Dehlsen is on a life’s quest, propelled by the vision of a moral world — by his definition, a planet that is much less dependent on coal and oil.
Now, he is drawing on his expertise in wind to explore the untapped energy of the sea. With his son Brent, Dehlsen has designed an underwater “windmill” to harvest the unstoppable flow of the Gulf Stream off Florida. For the wind-whipped waters off the U.S. West Coast, the Dehlsens have designed a grid of floating pods equipped with pistons to capture the energy in the rise and fall of the waves.
In his lifetime, Jim Dehlsen hopes to see the ocean powering American homes and providing American jobs.
“We’re determined to make it happen,” he said. “I really want to see this in deployment. The continental shelf off the coast of Florida extends out 20 miles, and flowing over it is a river that has a constant flow equal to 50 times all the rivers of the planet. It’s just tremendous. It’s always there.”
What’s not always there, Dehlsen said, is government support in grants and subsidies for pioneers who, like him, struggle to come up with the millions needed to invest in new technologies in renewable energy. Federal support for wind blows hot and cold: During the past decade, tax credits for wind power have expired and been extended — usually for one or two years at most — on seven different occasions, creating uncertainty in the market and scaring investors away. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or stimulus fund, gave wind power a big boost with cash grants covering 30 percent of construction costs, but the time frame, as usual, was short: To qualify, projects have to begin construction by the end of this year.
By contrast, the U.S. government showers support on fossil fuels for electricity.
Most of Dehlsen’s early competitors went bankrupt in 1985, when the first round of subsidies dried up. After giving birth to the wind-power industry, the U.S. lost its position as the top producer of wind power in the world for more than two decades. It holds the No. 1 spot for now, but China is the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines.
The U.S. also has ceded a global market in offshore wind to Europe, where generous government subsidies, higher energy prices and $7-per-gallon gasoline provide a more favorable climate for renewables. Denmark built the first offshore “wind park” in 1991, and as of last year, according to one report, there were 67 in operation or pending in Northern Europe.
The first offshore wind farm in the U.S., a 131-turbine project off Cape Cod, was approved by the U.S. interior secretary in April. The turbines themselves will be manufactured by Siemens, Europe’s largest engineering conglomerate.
“In Europe, the oil and gas industries have much less influence on government policymaking,” Dehlsen said. “That kind of environment is crucial for wind.”
Likewise, in the field of marine renewable energy, the U.S. is roughly a decade behind Europe, where 15 tidal energy and 13 wave energy plants are in operation or pending, primarily in the British Isles. By contrast, the U.S. has installed only a few pilot projects, including a “power buoy” off Hawaii and tidal energy turbines in New York City’s East River. As noted in a special issue of Oceanography this month on marine renewable energy, the industry doesn’t even have the proper infrastructure to test new devices.
Dehlsen hopes the country will learn from its past mistakes.
“The real subsidies are going to carbon fuels,” he said. “How can we turn this around in the U.S.? It’s ingrained in the whole system.”
Wind is the world’s fastest-growing energy source: In the U.S. alone, the wind-power industry expanded by 39 percent last year.
But in the early days of modern windmills, Dehlsen recalled, investors wouldn’t even look at wind farms. “It was just too far out,” he said. “The response was, ‘You’re going to do what?’ You could see their eyes glaze over.
“Early-stage technology is really the appropriate place for government support to be involved, because traditional financing can’t deal with new concepts. They put a risk premium on it.”
When the government began offering tax credits and grants for emerging wind technologies, Dehlsen was able to test his design, attract investors and compete with oil, an industry that has been heavily subsidized in the U.S. since the 1920s. By 1985, he employed 600 people at his windmill manufacturing plant in Mojave. But the nation’s memories of the 1973 and 1979 oil embargoes faded, and the government allowed the subsidies for wind to expire.
“It really killed off the industry,” Dehlsen said. “We managed to survive, but we were one of the few.”
Dehlsen later sold his wind farm to Enron, which sold it to General Electric. To date, he said, GE has produced 13,000 of the Mojave-style windmills, with some refinements to his design.
In the 1990s, as U.S. support for wind picked up again, Dehlsen received $32 million in federal grants to create three generations of wind turbines, each the largest in the world when they were built. He also won an additional $9 million federal grant to develop a windmill that could operate in variable wind speeds. This model was a significant technological advance that opened up new areas for the industry, places where the wind was not perpetually howling. The blades of variable-speed wind turbines accelerate in gusts of wind, retaining their momentum when the gusts pass.
It’s the kind of breakthrough that would not have been possible without government support, Dehlsen said. Plus, he added, “you got to have crazy people like me who think they can do it.”
In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Environment in December, Dehlsen told how the $9 million grant had helped attract $150 million in private investment for his Liberty wind turbine. It is now being manufactured in Cedar Rapids by Dehlsen’s company, Clipper Windpower Inc.,which recently sold 49 percent of its stock to United Technologies Corp. Clipper has 700 employees worldwide and has produced 500 windmills for 17 projects in the U.S. and Mexico.
“But there is the other side of the coin,” Dehlsen told the committee. He related how the government abruptly ended its support for offshore wind projects in 2006, just as Clipper was trying to partner with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on a project.
“Perhaps the hardest policy lesson that has come out of the American wind effort has been the repeated crippling effect on the industry from discontinuity in government support,” Dehlsen testified.
In 2007, finding no support for offshore wind in his own country, Dehlsen turned to United Kingdom and was received with open arms. To date, Clipper has received nearly $30 million from the royal family’s Crown Estate and the British government to develop and manufacture what will be the largest offshore turbine in the world. The Crown Estate owns the rights to the offshore regions of the British Isles and is advancing the price of Clipper’s first commercial windmill. The manufacturing plant for the blades is under construction in Newcastle, once best known for its coal; production will begin in 2013.
Dehlsen’s views on government support are shared by entrepreneurs and investors alike.
Peter Grubstein, the founder and managing member of NGEN Partners, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based firm that bills itself as “one of the most active cleantech venture investors in the world,” with $500 million under management, said that government grants are “extraordinarily important” for emerging technologies to succeed. Without that help, Grubstein said, “a lot of little companies will not get funded, particularly given the dearth of capital in the financial sector.”
NGEN typically invests in early-stage companies that have developed proven prototypes for the products, a process that can take five years, Grubstein said.
“Companies that are small and not well-financed are unlikely to get our financing,” he said. “Taking a chance on the new technologies that are unproven is very, very hard for an investor to do.”
Sidney Tassin, the founder and president of Carta Energy LLC, a Dallas-based investment firm, and a director of Clipper Windpower, oversaw an $11 million investment in Clipper in 2001 when the Liberty turbine, then the world’s largest, did not yet exist. It was in very early design stages. Dehlsen needed the money to launch Clipper, develop the turbine and purchase options on land. It was not a traditional investment for Energy Spectrum Capital LLC, the Dallas firm that Tassin headed at the time, and, he said, his partners were initially reluctant to take the risk.
Dehlsen’s stature as a pioneer in the U.S. wind industry helped change their minds, and so did the government’s $9 million grant to Clipper, Tassin said.
“It definitely helped attract the capital,” he said. “It said that our equity dollars would go further because we would be matching these federal government dollars.”
“I tend to be a strong free-market oriented person,” Tassin added. “I’m not looking for the government to decide who’s going to get the money and who’s going to have the better idea. But I think a nascent industry like renewables is an appropriate place for government research dollars to help prime the pump of innovation.
“We can always find another deal somewhere. Deals are like streetcars; one comes by every 15 minutes. But government funding helps energize the entrepreneurial part of it.”
Zachary Solomon, a project manager for American Ventus Energy LLC, an Austin, Tex.- based company that develops wind farms, put it this way:
“Without government subsidies, I wouldn’t be in this business,” he said. “Private industry can only invest so much. If you look at Europe’s successes in this area, you have to recognize the fact that the governments there have been very open-minded when it comes to investing in renewable technologies for the past two decades. Europe has a better understanding of the potential applications of renewable energy.”
Robert Thresher, a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a facility of the U.S. Department of Energy, and a former director of the lab’s National Wind Technology Center, said that Europe first “started to get religion” about renewable energy after the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. In 2007, the European Union set a goal of supplying 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. The U.S. clean energy bill passed by the House last year set a similar target, but the Senate last week shelved plans for a broad energy bill.
American support for renewable energy has been driven by crises and the high cost of oil, Thresher said. “It’s a classic American way of doing business. We do everything sort of piecemeal, so there’s no stable policy. That’s been the key problem. Every administration changes its energy plan. It’s been very difficult for people like Jim Dehlsen to know what the ground rules are so that they can make a rational investment.
“But no matter what happens, I don’t think this industry can be stopped. It may have slowdowns and speedups, but it’s the cheapest form of very low-carbon energy. And people want jobs.”
On Dehlsen’s hypothetical energy map of the U.S., there are land-based wind farms in the Midwest and offshore wind farms along the East Coast north of North Carolina. As previously reported by Miller-McCune, the combined output of a fleet of offshore wind farms could provide more than enough electricity for the heavily populated East Coast, without interruption, because when the wind dies down in one spot off the Atlantic coast, it’s invariably kicking up in another spot.
Florida has no good wind resources, but it could get power from the Gulf Stream, Dehlsen said. The U.S. Minerals Management Service has calculated that harvesting just one one-thousandth of the Gulf Stream’s energy flow could supply Florida with 35 percent of its electrical needs. Ocean current speeds are lower than wind speeds, but because water is 835 times denser than wind, a 12 mile-per-hour water flow packs the same amount of energy as 110-mile-per-hour hurricane.
As for the West Coast, Dehlsen said, wave energy could be harnessed along the windy shores north of San Francisco and at Point Conception in Santa Barbara County.
“It’s all stuff to be done,” he said.
Palpable federal support for marine renewable energy began in 2008, the first year of a $250 million five-year appropriation for research in the field. At the House committee hearing in December, Dehlsen and others requested a reauthorization of those funds. In its report, the committee noted that approximately 10 percent of U.S. national electricity demand “may be met through river in-stream sites, tidal in-stream sites and wave generation,” not including ocean currents.
A 10-year reauthorization has been included in a Senate energy bill, but the upcoming House version does not yet include those funding levels. Meanwhile, the proposed Marine Renewable Energy Promotion Act, legislation that would accelerate federal tax breaks and technological aid, has been stalled in Congress for more than a year.
This spring, in a “roadmap” drawn up by Thresher and modeled after the U.K.’s, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory proposed setting a goal of 23 gigawatts from marine renewable energy in the U.S. by 2030. That’s the equivalent of 23 nuclear power plants – an aggressive plan, Thresher said, but attainable, in part because the technology of wind is transferable to marine energy.
“It reminds me of where wind was in 1985,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to take 30 years for marine renewables to mature. There’s a potential for a much more stable market with climate change and the rising cost of carbon fuels.”
In a recent survey, the department found that most entrepreneurs in the field, including Dehlsen, were operating on small amounts of money – between $2 million and $10 million – and were struggling to find the capital to test their expensive designs beyond the lab. They said they needed between $4 million and $25 million each to build demonstration projects and get certified by an independent engineering firm. That’s how an emerging technology proves that it is “bankable” and can borrow money.
“In the early stages of an industry, the support has to be continuous,” Jim Dehlsen said. “You can’t build projects if it takes three years to put it together and the support expires and you’re not going to get financing.”
The Dehlsens have patented their design for the Aquantis Current Plane, or C-Plane, a series of “windmills” that would be suspended about 150 feet underwater, tethered to the ocean floor about 12 miles offshore. The Dehlsens also have patents for the Centipod, which can be installed in waves 6 feet high between offshore wind turbines or along the coast, a mile from shore.
Dehlsen has received $3 million in federal funding for the Aquantis and about $150,000 for the Centipod for preliminary engineering expenses. He estimates there will be two more years of engineering costs before prototypes can be built. For Aquantis alone, Dehlsen says he’ll need $26 million, primarily in government funding, to get it ready for the market.
For this undaunted entrepreneur, it’s not just clean energy: It’s the way to rebuild America.
“There really needs to be consistent support for these projects, or you kind of waste your money,” Dehlsen said. “Ten years ago, we had the luxury of being frivolous about supporting this type of thing. We don’t have that luxury anymore. We have so much loss of industry, we’d better find a way to start building it back. How will we ever regain our position as an economic force in the world?”