A decision to test the world’s most powerful turbine in South Carolina highlights growing confidence in the U.S. offshore wind industry pipeline, according to industry watchers. 

“It does signal that offshore wind is going to be a U.S. industry and not a series of European projects in U.S. waters,” said Stephanie McClellan, director of the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative for Offshore Wind, after MHI Vestas picked Clemson University for testing.

The turbine maker, a joint venture between Vestas Wind Systems and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, now has the second-largest share of the offshore market. In October, MHI Vestas announced a $23 million, five-year investment to test its upcoming V164 model at Clemson.

“The V164 9.5-megawatt wind turbine is the most likely to be used for the first round of major offshore wind projects in the United States,” claimed the company.

All the testing and verification of the wind turbine’s gearbox and main bearings will be carried out at Clemson’s 15-megawatt test site to gain a better understanding of how they will react over the course of a multi-decade lifecycle.

MHI Vestas chose to outsource the testing to Clemson as a way of adding to its European test capacity, said Adam Thomsen, head of U.S. market development at MHI Vestas Offshore Wind.

“It’s important to say it’s not a free lunch that we have provided to Clemson University,” he said. “We had the need, we did a global search, and Clemson came up with something that was attractive that also fitted our overall strategy for the U.S. market.”

The test program, part of a $35 million spend on the V164, is MHI Vestas’ first big investment in the U.S. It's another sign that a major pipeline of offshore projects may materialize in the country.

Deepwater Wind, for example, is building a 90-megawatt plant off Long Island’s South Fork as a follow-up to its pioneering 30-megawatt Block Island project in Rhode Island waters.

New York is planning to procure about 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, under its Reforming the Energy Vision clean energy program.

Just up the coast, Massachusetts last year mandated that utilities Eversource, National Grid and Unitil must procure 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2027.

In the meantime, Virginia is planning a 12-megawatt demonstration project, Maryland is considering two offshore plants, and there is interest in developing offshore wind in California and the Great Lakes.

“Moving the testing here is a clear indicator of that potential for offshore wind,” said McClellan. “The R&D is more likely to be done near testing facilities. We’ll see American innovation and ingenuity as a major part of that industry.”

In June, Zentech and Renewables Resources International unveiled plans for the first-ever Jones Act-compliant wind turbine installation vessel.

Creating a national industry and supply chain would be essential in helping to achieve the cost reductions that offshore would need to compete with onshore wind in the U.S., said McClellan.

“We’re not going to have offshore wind at any scale in this country unless it’s a U.S. industry,” she said. 

MHI Vestas' Thomsen said scale and long-term commitment are essential for the equipment maker to consider setting up turbine manufacturing facilities.

“External consultants normally say there’s around 2 gigawatts [to be] installed by 2025,” he said. “I hear that is a realistic target, but even if we gained a 50 percent market share, which is very, very high, then 1 gigawatt until 2025 is not enough to justify such a big investment.”

Until there is clear visibility of a long-term pipeline, said Thomsen, MHI Vestas would likely look to source non-turbine components locally. These components, ranging from cabling to foundations, can make up 70 percent of the value of an offshore wind farm by cost.

“Next year, when we have boots on the ground, that will be one of the core tasks of the team,” he said. “We've got the message: Local jobs are important. But also, we are committed long-term to the market. We need to be competitive. We need to develop a local cost base.”