October 2016 issue: First Annual Offshore Issue

U.S. offshore wind industry officially launched. Now what?

What’s the difference between a U.S. wind farm and one in Europe? This may sound like the lead-in to a joke, but the question is serious and comes from a wind-industry veteran at a recent AWEA event. The answer: Everything! In Europe, a land-based wind farm often has less than 10 turbines. In the U.S., dozens. Winds on the Great Plains are stronger than those that sweep Europe. Offshore Europe has hundreds of turbines. In the U.S., maybe six: Block Island and one floater by the University of R.I. Shallow water in the North Sea makes monopiles the preferred foundation. Deepwater Wind south of Block Island used a four-legged design.

The Block Island development, however, is noteworthy because it officially launches the U.S. offshore wind industry. That small, 30-MW wind farm holds five 6-MW turbines built by GE’s division in France, formerly Alstom. Many more offshore wind farms, mostly along the east coast, are in the planning stages. Thus, U.S. planners are thinking big, which is good. And a GE spokesman at the recent AWEA Windpower conference suggested the market could develop faster than anyone imagines.

Now let me ask: What is the difference between building a wind farm on shore and off? Answer: As with European and U.S. wind farms – everything! By now, building an onshore wind farm is a piece of cake. Most of the engineering is well known and there have been a lot of lessons learned. Offshore is a whole new ballgame.

Land-based wind farms cost less than offshore because…they’re on land. No special ships, barges, or certifications are necessary. The work is well defined. Not so with offshore where everything is new. One good thing about offshore, of course, is that turbines can be far enough from the coast to be unobtrusive, but close to load centers so transmission cables needn’t run for hundreds of miles.

As JDR Cable Systems’ John Price points out in an accompanying article, offshore installation vessels will have to come from Europe until U.S. firms assemble a fleet. Technicians will need training, some initially from Europe. But the offshore oil industry can provide some of this, such as Boseit (Basic offshore safety induction and emergency training) certifications. And there are a lot of certifications involved. One installation barge, for instance, could call for 20 or more different certifications, although it is likely that a crew member would be certified for several different jobs. And the Jones Act, always a topic of conversation, was once considered a hurdle. That law, from the 1930s, forbids foreign-flagged vessels from transporting goods between U.S. ports. However, the Act is circumnavigated by simply sending European vessels directly to U.S. offshore wind sites.

Planners for Deepwater Wind did exactly that. Their turbines were built in France, loaded onto a four-legged jack-up barge, and sailed directly to the site near Rhode Island. John Price suggests that if vessels from Europe must stay longer in U.S. waters, they will probably be reflagged as U.S. ships to get around the Jones Act.

So what’s next in offshore development? Legislators in Massachusetts decreed that the state’s utilities must purchase 1,600 MW of offshore power. And next year, construction could begin on the Ice Breaker wind project in Lake Erie, raising all the uncertainty questions anew. Stay tuned. The offshore wind industry is an interesting experiment.

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