Developers face significant headwinds as they seek offshore clean energy

Offshore gales beckon kilowatts and profit.

However, building wind turbines or wave energy devices in an environment where weather regularly whips white caps to a frenzy and drives commercial fishermen to safe harbor brings higher development costs and technological challenges.

Those are not expected to dissuade a new generation of clean energy prospectors that is projected to install between 58 and 71 gigawatts of generation capacity, representing $52.2 billion to $78.6 billion in power production, by 2017 worldwide, according to a new study by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research. A gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts or enough to power about 330,000 homes.

On another promising but more technologically uncertain front, Pennington, N.J.-based Ocean Power Technologies Inc. plans to install a specially designed buoy to extract energy from waves off Reedsport, Ore., reported Ocean Power Magazine (no relation). The company is awarding four contracts to Oregon companies in connection with the manufacture and deployment of its PB150 PowerBuoy.

The magazine reported that the new contracts brings the investment by the company into the local economy to more than $6 million, "creating or saving up to 100 manufacturing and marine services jobs at the four companies and their suppliers."

In offshore wind, most of the development will take place in Europe with the United States accounting for between 2.9 and 6.2 gigawatts, said study authors Peter Asmus, Pike senior analyst, and Brittany Gibson, Pike research associate.

"The United Kingdom is projected to lead the world with $12 billion by 2017," they wrote. Asia won't be far behind.

The UK's leadership is no surprise as the British have been harvesting wind energy offshore for the past decade and are not expected to slow down. The country is also encouraging development of wave energy off the shores of Scotland.

But expect China, a big mover in clean energy from development of solar installations to the manufacturing dominance of solar panels, to make a major push.

The United States isn't taking any of this sitting down. The U.S. government has unleashed a relative torrent of measures to accelerate President Obama's clean energy objectives. The president this year announced the goal of generating 80 percent of the nation's electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said offshore wind received the coordinated might of the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Energy to "support offshore wind energy deployment and several high priority wind energy areas in the mid-Atlantic that will spur rapid, responsible development of this abundant renewable resource."

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the approval for construction of the Cape Wind Energy Project off Nantucket in April, calling it the nation's first offshore operation. Construction could begin later this year.

Salazar also said the government is working to synchronize research and development initiatives with "more efficient, forward-thinking planning" for offshore wind, committing up to $50.5 million in project funding.

Wind turbines are getting bigger and more efficient. Innovations in design are expected. Still, transmission lines remain a major hurdle and cost, especially offshore.

But Google is a believer. Its Atlantic Wind Connection transmission line will stretch 350 miles off the coast from New Jersey to Virginia. Officials say the line will link  6,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines, or thequivalent of 60 percent of wind energy brought on line in 2009 and "enough to serve approximately 1.9 million households."