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Meeting the Challenges to Develop U.S. Offshore Wind Industry

offshore wind farm development
(file photo)

Published Sep 18, 2022 4:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

The emergence of the offshore wind power industry is creating opportunities for all the sectors of the maritime industry but also faces execution challenges as it moves forward was the sentiment in a panel discussion hosted by the Coast Guard Foundation and the Maritime Association of the Port of NY and NJ. The panelists pointed to issues that the industry needs to address as the U.S. moves into the construction and operation of its first large commercial offshore wind farms. The prevailing sentiment however was that the industry is making great progress and with cooperation from all the participants is on track to meet the U.S. goals for renewable energy.

“There’s never been a market like this,” says William Hanson, Senior Vice President of Government Relations & Business Development of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company. “I think U.S. maritime is doing a great job.” He highlights the commitments coming from companies such as his own, which ordered one of the first, large specialized vessels for the U.S. sector while pointing to the need to overcome hurdles to get the work started.

While there is much that the U.S. can learn from Europe, which is ahead in the installation and operation of offshore wind farms, there is also a need for the industry to continue to develop its own solutions. Peter Lion, Senior Advisor, Offshore Wind at New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) points for example to a lot of innovation coming about in vessels and finding ways to work within the U.S. regulatory structure, especially the Jones Act which will govern how materials are moved to the sites. Lion says that a combination of approaches are emerging in the U.S such as the feeder model where U.S.-flagged barges will transfer materials from the staging points onshore to the installation vessels.

“People look at the complexities of the regulations and the Jones Act and say ‘this is impossible,’” says Dana Merkel, Associate at the law firm BlankRome. “What’s needed is a lot of planning,” she says with the other panelists agreeing that transparency and cooperation among all involved is going to be key to advancing the industry.

The panelists, who each represented different segments ranging from operators and maritime companies to legal experts, government, and the USCG, identified challenges based on their perspectives. While much progress has been made on paper planning the wind farms, they point to the ongoing challenges of completing permitting while anxious to overcome the hurdles to get started on installation. 

Manning Challenges 

Some of the challenges are longer term for example the maritime industry already faces a manning shortage and now new people and new skills are required for the wind farms. Alex Parker, Managing Partner at Rose Cay Maritime points out that many of the skills, such as crane handing and sea skills, already exist in the maritime industry, while John Mansolillo, Northeast Marine Affairs Manager at Ørsted says that the manning needs are not just offshore but also require technicians and others involved in the operations and maintenance of the wind farms. NYSERDA, Lion points out, has identified 117 unique occupations that will support the offshore wind industry.

Training will be one of the challenges linked to the manning needs for the industry. Merkel of BlankRome points out that so far much of the expertise exists in Europe but that U.S. law requires U.S. citizens for the manning in many of the critical functions. She speculates that the industry might send Americans to Europe to gain experience or asks if simulators and other training tools will be developed in the United States to prepare the future labor skills. 

“It’s time to get started on the labor requirements,” says Hanson noting that Great Lakes Dredge and others are already working with the maritime academies to build the programs to support the future of the industry. Similarly, Captain Zeita Merchant, Commander, Sector New York for the U.S. Coast Guard points out that the Coast Guard is also developing training and introducing new programs at its academy. Michael Stamatis, President and CEO of Red Hook Terminals notes the ILA is working with the industry to explore labor needs and contract amendments.

Port Development

The shipbuilding industry is already receiving orders for the construction of ships such as crew transfer vessels which will play a key role as the industry moves into construction and operations. All the panelists however agreed that the next big challenge emerging is the need for the local supply chains that will provide components as well as the ports and staging areas to support construction and future operations. 

“There is a big challenge to identify the space within the port that can support the industry’s needs,” says Michael Stamatis. He notes there is a lot of competition not only in the industry but with others such as residential developers and warehouse operators for the space. “We need to work with the property owners to educate them on the opportunities to develop for higher use,” says Stamatis. “South Brooklyn was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revitalize a port facility that was unused for years,” he points out while highlighting that for example, they are now focusing on a 200-acre site on the west shore of Staten Island which is a similar opportunity to repurpose a former oil space into an area for the wind industry.

Ørsted’s Mansolillo speaking as an owner/operator of wind farms pointed to the need for port infrastructure which he expects will grow as the industry expands and moves to floating wind farms. While many states have been competing for the early developments, he believes the next phase of the industry will require better cooperation among the states.

Another of the outgrowths as the industry develops are the challenges of increased port traffic and the potential for further congestion. Mansolillo says there could be 50 vessels coming to port to support one wind farm’s development while Alex Parker points to the need to transfer materials from the ports possibly 80 miles offshore. Based on challenges such as bridge clearances and space requirements, Parker points out that the U.S. needs to pursue offshore assembly which requires a steady stream of vessels moving materials from port staging areas to the sites.

“Cargo is already up 34 percent in Port of NY/NJ,” points out Captain Merchant of the USCG saying that working groups and other Coast Guard initiatives are already studying the impact on ports. USCG is also heavily involved regarding the placement of wind turbines to ensure fairways are maintained and commercial shipping, fishing, and other users of the waterways fairly share the spaces and work together to maintain the safety and security of the port.

Captain Merchant points out that the congestion concerns extend beyond just New York harbor. For example, with plans for facilities at the Port of Albany, New York congestion concerns and the Coast Guard’s planning extends North on the Hudson River.

All the participants concluded though that the industry is making strong progress. Today the industry is developing pilot projects says Alex Parker pointing to what is coming and the scaling up required to meet the challenges. New York, they believe, is very much at the forefront as one of the first states that will be home to large commercial U.S. offshore wind farms and provides examples for the future. Hanson of Great Lakes Dredge concluded by expressing a belief shared by the panel that the lessons learned in New York will filter through the industry providing a critical path forward for the U.S.’s offshore wind sector.