Plugging Into the Offshore Wind Industry

File image courtesy Block Island Wind

Published Nov 17, 2020 2:19 PM by Adron Allen

In 1965 in Rhode Island, Bob Dylan changed the course of popular music. He scandalized purists by plugging in an electric guitar for the first time in front of an audience at the Newport Folk Festival. It was a bold move that was met with derision by many, but it changed rock and roll forever, and made Dylan a household name. Half a century later, history was made again in Rhode Island as the state’s power grid was plugged in to five wind turbine generators standing in 100 feet of water about 4 miles offshore. It was another bold move, but it forged a connection that would open the door for a whole new wave of offshore wind industry for the United States.

While the European nations and operators have spent the past 30-plus years developing their offshore wind capabilities, the US has lagged behind. Indeed, it was even questioned if the country’s offshore wind plans would ever come to fruition. So, when Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm was built, it sparked excitement and signaled the tangible beginning of a fledgling industry.

By the time Vineyard Wind won Massachusetts’ first offshore wind solicitation in 2018, things had changed. The leading question was no longer a matter of “if” but “when”. A whole new wave of excitement and anticipation was born.

From the earliest days of the now-defunct planned projects off the coasts of Massachusetts and New Jersey, GAC North America has worked diligently to become a trusted partner and leading service provider with the skills and resources the emerging US offshore wind industry needs. We offer guidance to our customers, both foreign and domestic, aiding them in navigating US regulations and requirements for their vessels and personnel working in support of planned wind farms.

Energizing the industry

Initially focusing on vessel agency and husbandry, GAC has worked with vessel owner/operators who previously been based in oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico for years and now needed a trusted guide as they moved to the New England coast for the first time. The company also works with and guides those who had never had a vessel make a US port call, let alone conduct project work in US waters.

Some of its principals are purpose-built to serve the offshore wind industry, while others are significant, long-established players in the upstream Oil & Gas (O&G) sector seeking to expand or diversify and transition into a new market, just as the major construction phases in the US offshore windfarms get underway in the coming years. GAC North America’s experience with all phases of offshore upstream O&G activity give it a solid foundation from which to provide support in every aspect of US offshore wind projects, from initial environmental, geophysical, and geotechnical surveys through to pile or jacket installation, wind turbine generator and substation construction, and inter-array or export cable burial and connection.

In recent years, GAC has been supporting principals working on eight different US offshore wind projects spanning a half-dozen states across the US Northeast and Central Atlantic coastlines. As our principals’ projects progress, they turn to GAC’s multiple business lines to provide additional solutions beyond vessel agency, ranging from in-house customs brokerage, freight forwarding and warehousing to route coordination, visa assistance and optimized bunker fuel supply via GAC Bunker Fuels. In a sign of the times, the company has also provided valuable support in expediting COVID-19 testing and travel coordination, both domestically and internationally. We have added, reassigned or relocated staff as needed to deliver what our customers need, exemplifying the flexibility to serve the industry as efficiently as possible.

Looking forward

Watching this growth and development of our own companies from within is exciting, but it is only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the jobs that offshore wind will bring into the US. Studies from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), among others, predict the offshore wind industry could create more than one hundred thousand US jobs, and generate economic development worth tens of billions of dollars annually. Even before the first monopile or jacket for a commercial windfarm touches the seafloor, we are seeing significant infrastructure investment from private enterprise, cities, and states committing to redeveloping derelict or long-abandoned port terminals – and that means jobs. US-built Crew Transfer Vessels (CTVs) and Service Operation Vessels (SOVs) are putting shipyards to work, US-flagged survey vessels are putting mariners to work, terminal developments and improvements are putting engineers, surveyors, architects, construction crews and more to work.

Beyond the economic benefits, the developing US offshore wind industry has focused further attention on environmental responsibility. Windfarm operators have been working closely with biological and physical oceanographers and local fishing communities to determine the best installation methods and placement of the wind turbine generators to ensure the impacts on migratory fish and bird species are kept to an absolute minimum.

Of particular concern is the protection of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. The protection of this species has been factored into the design and operation of new, purpose-built vessels which will support the windfarms on a daily basis after construction. Environmental concerns have also spurred innovation in the propulsion systems of these new vessels, with development in cleaner technologies such as LNG, battery, or hydrogen power becoming more prominent.

GAC North America is now playing a significant role in this expanding industry, in the same way that our colleagues at GAC Denmark did with the first installation at Vindeby in 1991 and GAC UK since the development of North Hoyle and Scroby Sands in the early 2000s. We are drawing on that wealth of experience within the GAC Group to gain insight and support from our colleagues who have already been where we are today. We are also working closely with them as the technology for floating offshore wind becomes more refined, bringing with it the potential for additional US projects in deeper waters. Just a few short years ago, the potential for floating wind turbine generators off the coast of Northern California seemed like a pipedream to some, but now there are already surveys underway in water depths of over 2,000 feet. After all, not so long ago, some of the initial projects planned for the Atlantic coast seemed to be up against insurmountable hurdles, discouraging some visionaries and encouraging many of the nay-sayers, Today, the US has two proof-of-concept wind turbine generators (each of which has a nameplate capacity greater than the first windfarm at Vindeby) in approximately 88 feet of water, 27 miles off the coast of Virginia, ready to enter commercial service.

As states continue to introduce and pass legislation calling for greater environmental responsibility paving the way for renewable energy sources, the US offshore wind industry will continue to grow. Wind turbine generators will continue to get larger and more efficient. Offshore windfarm developments will enter deeper waters and new locales. And the excitement of being not just witnesses, but active participants in a revolutionary period for industry in the United States is something that GAC North America will hold dear in perpetuity.

Adron Allen is business manager for offshore services, oil & gas / renewables at GAC.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.