By Mark Del Franco
At the end of 2018, there were 14 offshore wind projects in various stages of development across the Eastern and Great Lakes coasts. While offshore developers secure financing, licenses, and components, several U.S. port operators are upgrading their infrastructure to accommodate this emerging renewable energy market.
Liz Burdock, the executive director of offshore wind advocacy Business Network for Offshore Wind, notes that the U.S. ports have been playing catch-up even before the country’s first and only offshore wind farm began operation off the coast of Rhode Island. She says time – namely the lack of it – may prove to be their biggest hurdle.
“The ports have been playing catch-up,” says Burdock. “They should have been making these improvements three years ago.”
Since many infrastructure improvements still need to be made, there could be bottleneck constraints at the ports. Nonetheless, Burdock explains the port dilemma comes down to the realities and growing pains of a developing industry.
“The ports themselves are not to blame,” she explains. Offshore wind projects in the U.S. have been talked about for some time. However, it’s only in the last few years when offshore wind projects such as Block Island, have regulatory, environmental, and legislative support.
“Nobody is going to make investments in projects that may or may not happen,” she says. For her part, Burdock is confident these investments will get made. “It’s just a matter of when.”
A handful of ports are recognizing the time is now and are prepping for offshore wind in the United States.
Port of New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, Massachusetts
Operated by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal is a multi-purpose, 26-acre facility built to support the construction, assembly, and deployment of offshore wind projects. It is the first purpose-built port in the U.S. and one that can also handle bulk, break-bulk, container, and large specialty marine cargo. In 2016, Massachusetts’ Baker-Polito administration signed a letter of intent with Ørsted (formerly DONG Energy), Deepwater Wind, and OffshoreMW to lease the facility as a staging and deployment location for future wind projects.
With Governor Phil Murphy prioritizing offshore wind, the sector is finally moving forward. After a slew of initiatives to backstop offshore wind, the Murphy administration and the state legislature reauthorized a $100 million tax credit aimed at improving infrastructure at state-based ports. This includes the Port of Paulsboro, says Brian Sabina, senior VP of economic transformation for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
The administration envisions industry development programs (like tax credits) as key incentives, positioning New Jersey as an Eastern hub for offshore wind development. Sabina says the opportunity in New Jersey is similar to how Houston became an economic powerhouse in the oil and gas industry.
“Not only is Houston a center for major energy companies, but think of all the technology, finance, and service economy jobs linked to oil and gas,” he says. “The same rationale applies to New Jersey. So how do we create the Houston of offshore wind?”
One way is by using New Jersey’s coastline as a mid-Atlantic martialing port that could house enormous offshore wind components for local and Eastern projects, such as those planned in New York and Maryland. Sabina cites the 130 to 150-mile coastal land zone that is unencumbered by the presence of bridges and power lines. The state is studying other offshore wind opportunities through the development of its Offshore Wind Strategic Plan.
Braden Point, Massachusetts
Braden Point sits on 300 acres near the water and is the former site of a coal-fired power plant, currently being converted into an offshore wind hub. The new hub is likely to attract ventures such as Vineyard Wind, a partnership between Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners that won an 800-MW solicitation earlier this year.
Tradepoint Atlantic, Maryland
The Baltimore, Maryland-based facility landed a $20 million Tiger Grant last March from the federal government. Although not specifically earmarked for offshore wind, a portion of the funding will go to the offshore wind sector. As mandated by the Maryland legislature, Tradepoint Atlantic is the port for U.S. Wind’s 250-MW Maryland Offshore Wind Project, which is scheduled to come online in 2020.
Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, Ohio
Situated at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River near Lake Erie, this port facility is reinforcing its docks to in preparation for the Lake Erie Economic Development Corp.’s (LEEDCo) Icebreaker offshore wind farm. According to Jade Davis, VP of external affairs at the Port, LEEDCo will use the port as a staging area for blades and the main hub.
“When we first approached, we asked ourselves what we had to [get steel in the water] safely and efficiently,” explains Davis. “We made improvements to the main gate and our warehouse — each of those will benefit offshore wind.”
The supply chain
As the ports assess their level of readiness, the nascent offshore wind industry and its supply chain partners are grappling with the logistics of staging, housing, and building offshore wind components.
Although Deepwater Wind’s 30-MW Block Island Wind Farm was commercialized in 2016, there’s a big difference between a pilot-scale project and a utility-scale project, explains Jay Borkland, program manager and international advisor for engineering and design consultancy Ramboll.
Serial production of modern offshore wind turbines is equal parts art and science, Borkland says, noting that recent reports of General Electric’s new offshore 12-MW wind turbine — which is nearly four times the output of the units erected at Block Island — has an overall wingspan roughly the length of the Golden Gate Bridge (when measured from tip to tip).
“This whole operation is the largest ballet you’ll ever see,” says Borkland, himself a 35-year veteran of marine infrastructure, ports, and offshore wind. “And all of the components need to be scheduled, delivered and installed in a perfect ‘just-in-time’ fashion.”
As a result, U.S. ports are facing serious challenges converting their existing capacity, citing more hardened quaysides and deeper berths to allow overseas vessels transporting the components to enter the ports.
The size of the offshore components is one concern. Cost and time are also critical factors for project bankability and insurability. For example, insurers mandate that offshore wind projects can only be constructed and installed during a seasonal window, typically April through October.
And if developers miss that short window, cost overages can run $100,000 to $300,000 per day. Therefore, the pressure is equally on developers and their port partners to perform.