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New Frontiers

Momentum grows for U.S. offshore wind.

Block Island Wind Farm installation in progress
File image courtesy Block Island Wind

Published Jan 6, 2023 12:26 PM by Mia Bennett

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2022 edition.)

Humans first harnessed the power of the wind to ply rivers and seas. Beginning at least 5,500 years ago, ancient Egyptians hoisted square sails above boats hewn from Lebanese cedar to capture northerlies, which would blow them from the Mediterranean 1,200 kilometers up the Nile.

Now, around the world, societies are anchoring towers deep into the sea floor to capture gales and gusts, whose energy will provide electricity onshore. The largest of these offshore wind turbines debuted in October in China before the 20th Party Congress in Beijing, demonstrating the lofty machines’ emerging symbolism for nation-building. With blades stretching 857 feet across from end to end – a distance nearly equivalent to a 60-story building – this record-breaking turbine can power 30,000 households a year.

If three sailboats on the horizon in 1492 heralded a new era for civilization, enormous windmills offshore in 2022 may usher in a new era for energy.

“30 by 30”

Two months after entering office, in March 2021, President Joe Biden announced a plan to generate 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2030. The initiative, dubbed “30 by 30,” would power 10 million homes and create 77,000 jobs if realized. It would also nearly double worldwide offshore wind capacity, which stood at 35.3 GWs in 2020. Three-quarters of this energy is generated by the U.K., Germany and China.

The U.S., in other words, is behind the curve. Since the Biden Administration took over, however, the country has finally begun to catch up.

To develop offshore wind power, engineers, technicians, seamen and tankermen are needed – as are ships to get workers there. In 2015, Charlie Donadio, who has decades of experience in the maritime industry, established Atlantic Wind Transfers as the nation’s first offshore wind farm support company –  providing crew and cargo transfer services.

“Atlantic Wind Transfers has been involved in offshore wind since day one,” he says, “during the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm.” Opening in December 2016, Block Island was the country’s first offshore wind farm.

The five turbines visible offshore from Rhode Island, nicknamed the “Starting Five,” are owned and operated by Danish company Ørsted. The European multinational opened the world’s first offshore wind farm in 1991 in Vindeby, off Denmark. It took the U.S. another 25 years to install its first five turbines, which remained America’s only such installation for four years as momentum slowed under the Trump Administration, which turned the tide against renewables and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement to limit climate change to a two-degree Celsius increase.

Finally, in 2020, two more offshore wind turbines began operation in the U.S. as part of the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, generating 12 MWs of clean energy. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in 2021, the world’s largest floating offshore wind project built to date came online – the 50-MW Kincardine Offshore Wind Farm, which harnesses the blustery North Sea to power 35,000 homes in Scotland.

Since Biden took office, the nascent American sector has regained speed. In October 2022, the Department of the Interior announced the first offshore wind lease sale in the Pacific. In December, five areas totaling 373,268 acres will be offered on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) off central and northern California. These areas will have the potential to generate 4.5 GWs of energy.

Then, in November, the Biden Administration announced eight new lease areas in the Atlantic totaling 1.7 million acres. If successfully leased, the Pacific and Atlantic areas will add to the 27 active commercial wind leases in the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Massachusetts to North Carolina. The Pacific leases and areas in the Gulf of Maine are also being targeted for the development of floating offshore platforms like the one in Scotland. These have the advantage of being able to operate in places where the seafloor is too deep for securing turbines.

Pushback

The Biden Administration is eager to promote offshore over onshore wind as the former causes fewer disturbances to terrestrial species, from humans to birds. Other groups, however, are more skeptical.

The fishing industry is concerned that noise from installations and operations could disturb undersea wildlife. It’s also worried that entire areas will become functionally closed to fishing. Cables transmitting electricity from turbine to shore, for instance, could make it unsafe or impossible to operate vessels. In addition, many scientists and environmentalists have expressed fear that ship strikes and noise could severely harm marine mammals with proposed wind farms in the Atlantic, for example, possibly disturbing endangered right whales.

Nevertheless, Donadio contends, “I think in general, there’s going to be pushback and concerns along the coastline as to how close turbines are built to the shore. But the momentum has greatly built over the last three to five years politically and also among the general public.”

He further elaborates, “Fossil fuels have been pretty much handcuffing us with overseas supply. Energy independence is a buzzword and renewable energy has been a buzzword for years, so the momentum has picked up speed not only politically. We’re seeing all political entities supporting wind power, from state governors to the federal government, with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the agencies really picking up, too. We’re at a point now where it has absolutely got a lot of support from not just people paying their electric bills but anyone else who sees that this will be a new energy source providing a lot of jobs up and down the coasts.”

Borrowing from Europe

While a land war in Europe is motivating the U.S. to accelerate renewable energy development, it’s also looking to the greener continent for technologies and knowledge that European companies have been advancing for decades.

Odd Hagen, Vice President of Offshore Sales for Norway’s Kongsberg Maritime, explains that the 200-year old company has played a crucial role in developing some of the most sophisticated  enabling technologies for installation and maintenance vessels for offshore wind turbines. 

“Our technologies for wind turbine installation and operation are well-established,” he notes, “backed by 50 years’ experience in enabling safe and efficient offshore energy operations. Our diverse digital solutions, operational technology and engineering expertise are at the forefront of the modern age of maritime wind power, which is visible at every phase of an offshore wind farm’s entire lifecycle. We would also claim that our technologies transform the logistics of wind farm service and ensure safe transport for technicians and tools, which are essential to maintaining the operational availability of turbines.”

As much as governments and companies want to ramp up offshore wind, labor and supply chain issues will rein in some of these efforts. Donadio cautions, “We’re wanting to see “30 by 30” on offshore wind, but it’s hard to get that capacity built when the U.S. and the world can’t respond with the amount of parts and vessels and manpower needed. There are only so many shipyards and vessels available for all the different parts of construction and operation and maintenance. It will be a challenge for them to keep pace at a rate that would realize 30 MW of offshore wind energy in eight years.”

Hagen points to other challenges: “As the offshore wind industry continues to grow and develop in the years ahead, installation and support services will need to continually be remodeled in order to meet the challenges. Turbines will become bigger and more powerful and wind farm locations will move into more and more distant waters. Kongsberg Maritime will continue to deploy advanced technologies to meet the developing needs of the sector.”

Homegrown Innovations

Many homegrown innovations are taking place in North America too. Stephen Hale, Vice President of Rutter, a radar signal processing company in St. John’s, Canada, detailed its sigma S6 WaveSignal™ system.

He says the technology “provides support to the wind industry by helping predict quiet periods in wave action and by helping identify safe operating windows during lift/jack-ups, improving safety when doing personnel transfers to offshore wind turbines.” The system can predict individual waves that will impact a vessel or platform up to three minutes in advance.

Rutter is also developing vessel motion prediction technology, which will use wave predictions to provide users with crucial information on how a vessel will react to waves, resulting in a forecast of vessel motion. “This adds another layer of safety that can be used offshore when conducting critical operations,” Hale notes.

Atlantic Wind Transfers is also engineering new solutions for offshore wind. “We’re currently constructing the first two crew transfer vessels (CTVs) of a series of six that we’ll be bringing to market for construction operations and operations and maintenance projects along the East Coast in the years to come,” Donadio explains. He emphasized that the new vessels are Tier 4-certified, meaning they’ll be the lowest-emission CTVs in the global marketplace and the only ones operating in the U.S.

Conscious of the wind power sector’s own environmental footprint, Donadio adds, “We’re obviously looking at ways to lower our carbon footprint and NOx emissions for the offshore wind industry as well as our current and future clients who are going to be chartering our vessels.”

Bright & Windy

Despite a slow start to offshore wind in the U.S., the tide may finally be turning. “These are exciting times with lots of new lease areas on the West Coast of California as well as now on the East Coast,” Donadio says. “The industry is definitely growing quickly. And the future looks bright and windy.” 

Mia Bennett teaches at the University of Washington.

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