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(CNN Business) —  

General Electric is a tiny player in the booming offshore wind market. But that will change soon — and it needs to, if the company wants to outgrow its exposure to fossil fuels.

One major investment that illustrates GE’s interest: The Haliade-X, the world’s largest and most powerful offshore wind turbine.

Standing 853 feet tall — nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower — the monstrous turbine can produce enough electricity to power 16,000 American homes. GE announced a $400 million investment in the turbine a year ago, and it plans to install the first prototype in the Netherlands this summer. Commercial units are expected to follow in 2021.

“Through our know-how, we can bring new innovative technologies to scale like few others,” John Lavelle, CEO of GE’s offshore wind business, told CNN Business.

While the Haliade-X is still a prototype, GE is already bidding on offshore wind projects in the United States, France, China and the United Kingdom.

“We think we can make a positive difference,” Lavelle added.

An illustration shows the GE Haliade-X offshore wind turbine, which GE plans to install in the Netherlands this summer. The company is aiming to ship its first commercial units in 2021.
An illustration shows the GE Haliade-X offshore wind turbine, which GE plans to install in the Netherlands this summer. The company is aiming to ship its first commercial units in 2021.
PHOTO: General Electric

GE needs to invest in offshore wind, and renewable energy broadly, to offset the company’s fossil fuel problems.

Renewable energy on the rise

At GE Power, which makes and services natural gas and coal-fired power plants, orders plunged. GE’s stock has lost two-thirds of its value since the end of 2016, and Power is a big reason why.

GE has blamed its losses on tough competition from renewable energy, which is benefiting from falling solar and wind costs, as well as rising concerns about climate change.

Pressure from clean energy will only get worse. About three-quarters of US coal power plants could be phased out for renewable energy — and still save customers money, according to a recent report by nonpartisan think tank Energy Innovation Fund.

GE doubled down on fossil fuels at precisely the wrong time. The company’s $9.5 billion acquisition of Alstom’s power business in 2015 has been widely criticized.

One silver lining: The Alstom deal gave GE control of the French company’s offshore wind business.

Despite GE’s recent problems, Lavelle expressed confidence in the company’s ability to invest in the Haliade-X. He said GE offshore wind continues to have “adequate resources” to support development, and the project is “right on track.”

“If you’re not innovating, you’ll be transformed out,” Lavelle said.

Breaking into offshore wind

GE is a major onshore wind player around the world. Last year, GE was the top manufacturer of wind turbines in the United States, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

However, GE barely has a footprint in offshore wind, a more expensive and complex business given the inherent difficulties of installing massive machines in the ocean.

GE is expected to hold just 1% of the offshore wind market at the end of 2019, according to energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

Given that 25% of the world’s electricity comes from GE technology, Lavelle said “it would raise a question if GE wasn’t playing in offshore.”

Rival Siemens Gamesa will have about 17% of the offshore wind market at the end of the year, while Dutch manufacturer MHI Vestas will have more than 55%, Wood Mackenzie said.

“It’s a two-horse race,” said Luke Lewandowski, Wood Mackenzie’s power & renewables research director.

But Lewandowski welcomed GE’s push into offshore wind. He predicted the company’s Haliade-X will be “attractive” given that it will be the only 12-megawatt offshore wind turbine on the market. That greater firepower makes GE’s wind turbine more efficient, reducing the number of turbines that need to be installed in a given wind farm.

“From GE’s perspective, it’s not too late to get in,” Lewandowski said. “Any increase in competition will motivate innovation and drive down costs.”

Still, GE may find it difficult competing with its more established rivals in the offshore wind market.

“These are capital-intensive projects. Banks like to be extremely sure the technology will work as advertised,” Lewandowski said.

And even if GE succeeds here, the offshore wind business will represent a small fraction of the company’s overall business. It won’t be large enough to offset problems in other parts of GE’s empire.

’Exponential growth’

Nonetheless, GE is clearly moving into a flourishing space.

Wood Mackenzie expects the offshore wind industry will add about 8,500 megawatts of capacity in 2021 — that’s roughly double last year’s growth. And annual capacity additions will triple 2018’s levels by 2022.

“We’re seeing exponential growth in offshore,” Lewandowski said.

While the European offshore wind market is mature, nations in Asia are just starting to focus on this space.

GE wants to win orders from China, which is trying to reduce its reliance on coal power as pollution continues to be a major problem.

“China can be huge,” said Lavelle.

The United States, led by East Coast governors, is also turning to offshore wind to meet ambitious renewable energy targets.

Within the past year, Massachusetts approved its first commercial-scale wind farm that will have the potential to power almost 400,000 homes. New York and New Jersey are also moving further into offshore wind.

Offshore wind turbines sometimes face opposition from residents who don’t like the way they look.

However, GE has received mostly positive feedback on its wind turbines near Block Island, just south of Rhode Island. The wind turbines generate enough electricity to power the tiny island.

“The people like the look of the turbines. They’re a source of pride,” Lavelle said.