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How U.S. Ports Can Capitalize on the Offshore Wind Boom

block island wind offshore turbines
Block Island Wind, the first commercial offshore wind development in the U.S. (file image)

By Jay Borkland 08-27-2020 12:57:13

With over 30 gigawatts (GW) of planned electric power generating capacity being installed on the U.S. East Coast continental shelf over the next decade and a half, offshore wind presents a major opportunity for seaboard states to generate green jobs in the decades ahead.  

If current projections are realized, the Gulf Coast and the West Coast of the U.S. will see similar growth, pushing the U.S. installed capacity to match, and even exceed, that of Europe by 2050. The next ten years will see a significant uptick in the construction of major offshore wind farms – with between two and four GW per year coming online in the years to 2030 and beyond.  

To build these megafarms – which will include turbines with blades dwarfing a jumbo jet’s wingspan – there will need to be a rapid upgrade to port infrastructure in key states in addition to building a new fleet of Jones Act compliant vessels to construct and service them. To put this in context, each gigawatt installed represents billions of dollars of net expenditure – and if states and ports play it right, these investments will flow into the U.S. green collar supply chain.

So far, the U.S. has 30MW installed, with Vineyard Wind’s 804MW Park City project off Connecticut scheduled to commence construction in 2021.

These projects have attracted significant interest from the European supply chain, which is seeing the U.S. as the hot new market that will reward those that can innovate appropriately. Each offshore wind farm represents a major opportunity for the nearest state to win contracts for every element of the wind farm – from permitting and surveys through to manufacturing, construction, installation, operations and maintenance. The U.S. has the advantage of having the European experience to learn from, including the many mistakes that were made along the way. 

In this respect the U.S. has a natural advantage, with U.S.-specific regulations and competitor nations distanced by vast oceans.  The U.S. is on a path to developing a robust and uniquely American offshore wind industry that benefits from all the experience of the European offshore wind developers with the added benefit of American ingenuity, innovation and local knowledge.

Floating future

Looking ahead, to 2030 and beyond, it seems likely that floating offshore wind structures will become a growing segment within the offshore wind mix. 

The vast majority of current developments have been in waters of up to 50 meters deep, where fixed bottom infrastructure makes the most sense. But the growing demand for new sites in Europe and in deep water nations such as Japan (and along our own U.S. West Coast and the Gulf of Maine) means floating wind comes next.

Already, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has identified areas off of California and the Gulf of Maine as two potential areas where floating wind is likely to be the technology of choice, and their development could bring real benefits to the U.S.

However you look at it, offshore wind is certain to become a major and growing part of the U.S. energy paradigm in the decades ahead. This will bring massive economic opportunity to the supply chain and, if the lessons of Europe can be learned, those states which move fast and coordinate well will prosper the most. As Europe moves aggressively beyond the 18.5 GW already installed, ramping up to 75GW by 2050, the cost of energy from offshore wind continues to tumble, and it looks as if future offshore wind farms will be able to operate tariff-free and still be competitive with energy derived from other, more traditional sources.

Ports will be key

In the European experience, the leading offshore wind countries learned that the industry and the supply chain will develop around those places where the best port infrastructure exists; such as the mega ports of Hull in the UK and Bremerhaven in Germany on the northern North Sea.

The competitive drive to bring down cost has led to larger and larger machines – with GE’s Haliade-X 12MW paving new directions for the industry, and the new Siemens 14 MW monster turbine preparing to wade into the industry turbine wars.

These machines and the components that accompany them, require highly specialized ports with appropriate quaysides, extremely high load bearing capacities, large laydown areas, and specialized vessels, bulkheads and cranes.

Port facilities that can support offshore wind deployment have been identified up and down the coast and are actively being developed for offshore wind use. Facilities such as Brayton Point (MA), ProvPort and South Quay (RI), Arthur Kill, the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, and the Port of Coeymans (NY), Paulsboro (NJ), New London (CT), Sparrows Point (MD), and Portsmouth Marine Terminal (VA) are all getting ready and preparing for the shipping and handling of hundreds of giant super-heavy components.

However, no U.S .port has the vast acreage that developed at the major European hubs. On the East Coast we anticipate the need for between four to six large ports to build and service the turbines, while every state that has a wind farm will require a smaller, specialized port aligned to the long term 25-year operations and maintenance phase.

By working closely with port owners, state governments, manufacturers and the supply chain, developers can use an integrated approach that offers a compelling service to wind farm developers and at the same time maximize the benefit for the U.S. economy. 

Of course, visibility of the offshore wind pipeline is key – ports will not commit millions of dollars in investment without some idea of the opportunity ahead. Here the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) leasing rounds give a tremendous view of the bigger picture and increasing confidence in the ten-year pipeline.  Major developers all want a toehold in the nascent U.S. market, and LR is already working with a number of them to offer a concierge service to help them navigate local waters.

In the U.S., our team at LR have already compiled a detailed database of more than a hundred eastern seaboard ports with potential to capitalize on the offshore wind boom. Our personnel have been with the U.S. east coast ports development for offshore wind since the beginning, having acted as the lead for the design, permitting, and owners engineer oversight of the construction of the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal in Massachusetts.  

Jay Borkland is the head of clean energy at Lloyd’s Register (LR) USA.

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