BOSTON—Massachusetts could soon be home to the nation's first offshore wind farm -- and state officials are hoping to use the Cape Wind project to help fuel a small but burgeoning local wind-power energy boom.
There are already more than a half-dozen companies staking out their claim to the state's wind energy landscape, from designing better turbine blades to marketing high-tech machines that can measure wind speeds and directions from the ground.
And when the nation's largest wind blade testing facility opens early next year on Boston's waterfront, officials are hoping to draw even more business.
"We've been aggressive in looking to grow the wind energy cluster in Massachusetts," said Ian Bowles, the state's secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The bragging rights around the 130-turbine Cape Wind project slated for construction in Nantucket Sound have acted as a lure, according to Bowles.
"In the wind industry that's seen as a very big deal," he said. "Add to that a testing facility that has the largest capacity in the world for testing the largest blades in the world and you are going to see a lot of large wind blades coming into Boston."
Some of the companies trying to take advantage of the boom have long roots in the state.
Second Wind was created in Somerville in 1980 by graduates from Tufts University, Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Three decades later the company still relies on the state's brain power to fuel its latest innovations.
That includes a ground-based system that can measure wind directions and speeds up to 600 feet by sending sound pulses into the air and listen for the echo.
"Wind measurement is one of the first steps in developing a wind farm," said Second Wind General Manager Susan Giordano. "If you don't know how much wind you have, you won't know how much energy you will produce."
The company has decided to stay in Massachusetts in part because of the wealth of highly educated graduates, Giordano said. It manufactures its products in the state and recently opened a new facility in Newton. It ships its wind detectors as far away as China and India.
One newer company to set up shop in Massachusetts is Arizona-based TPI Composites Inc., which is planning to open a wind blade development center in Fall River next year. The company already has a smaller facility in Rhode Island.
CEO Steve Lockard said the main lure to Fall River was the proximity to the wind blade testing facility in Boston's waterfront Charlestown neighborhood. The state kicked in $250,000 to help sweeten the TPI deal at a time when many companies are cutting back on research.
Lockard said the 69,000 square-foot wind blade development center will employ from 30-50 workers initially as the company seeks to create more efficient turbine blades.
"We will be able to barge them up to Charlestown," Lockard said. "The fact that we could reach that via water was definitely an important factor in our decision."
Not everyone is cheering.
Critics say the state's green energy focus, from wind farms to solar energy installations, will translate into higher energy costs for consumers.
Paul Bachman, director of research at the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, said wind power has several drawbacks, not the least of which is the fact that wind doesn't produce a steady stream of energy.
"It's an intermittent source. You can't control it. You can't fire it up when you need more power," Bachman said. "If you add more wind onto the grid, you have to add an additional back up."
Encouraging a local wind power industry is fine, he added, "if you are selling windmills to other folks."
Bowles conceded that the number of jobs created in the clean energy sector is modest, but said it could eventually climb into the tens of thousands.
A poll released last week by Suffolk University found about 76 percent of Massachusetts voters said they were willing to pay at least one percent or more for electricity generated by renewable energy.
Support fell off dramatically the higher the cost, with just 17 percent willing to pay more than double their electric bills for energy created by wind, solar and biofuels.
The survey of 500 Massachusetts registered voters was conducted September 16-19 and had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Second Wind: http://www.secondwind.com/
TPI Composites: http://www.tpicomposites.com/