Winds of change: Offshore U.S. farms finally here

After more than a decade of hopeful starts and disappointing delays, North America’s fledgling offshore wind energy industry finally may have reached critical mass this month with the achievement of two significant milestones in New England.

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed a bipartisan renewable energy bill that, among other provisions, will significantly buoy offshore wind generation in the state by requiring local utilities to obtain 1,600 Mw of their combined electricity from new coastal wind farms to be built in the Atlantic Ocean. “This bill spurs the development of an emerging offshore wind industry, creates jobs, and represents the largest commitment of any state in the nation to offshore wind,” said Gov. Baker. “With our partners in the Legislature, the Commonwealth has taken another major step toward providing residents and businesses with a cost-effective and reliable clean energy future.”

State House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad (D), who had introduced the legislation, agreed. She told reporters, “This will start a whole new industry.”

“This is head and shoulders above other [offshore wind] procurement requirements in the nation and I think we are going to see real movement and real momentum coming from this,” said Nancy Sopko, advocacy and federal legislative affairs manager at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). “The winds of progress are blowing strong indeed.”

The new law is part of a broader effort to diversify the state’s clean energy portfolio, with another provision mandating utilities to procure 1,200 Mw of hydroelectric power, likely from Canada and upstate New York. New sources of renewables will be needed to help offset the effect of phasing out coal and nuclear generation. Massachusetts currently derives only 10% of its energy from renewables.

Energy storage test case

Also significant, the legislation authorizes the use of energy storage technologies paired with renewable power generation. Advanced energy storage technologies include batteries, flywheels, thermal and compressed air technologies that allow merchants, utilities, and electricity customers to store and discharge energy as needed instead of purchasing or generating more expensive energy during times of peak demand. “Energy storage technology has the potential to be a game changer,” said Judith Judson, commissioner of the Massachusetts Dept. of Energy Resources (DOER). “By pairing renewable energy resources with energy storage technology, this legislation will allow the Commonwealth to lower energy costs for ratepayers, shave our peak demand energy usage, and reduce our state’s carbon emissions.”

“Energy storage technology has the potential
to be a game-changer”

— Judith Judson, commissioner, MA-DOER

The new law requires Massachusetts to solicit long-term contracts — lasting 15 or 20 years — to procure 1,600 Mw of offshore wind power and another 1,200 Mw of hydropower or other renewable resources, such as land-based wind or solar. Baker said the goal is to solicit the bids for the new renewable energy in 2017. It could take anywhere from 18 months to three or four years after that for the energy to be delivered, according to the MassLive digital journal.

Due to issues ranging from costs and permitting snafus to local resistance and legal challenges, the U.S. has not constructed a single offshore turbine to date. A decade ago, the 468-Mw Cape Wind project, consisting of 130 Siemens 3.6-Mw offshore wind turbines, had been announced for Cape Cod with high hopes. But despite years of hard-fought victories in court, apparent state and federal support, and an impressive array of international financiers, including Barclays BankBank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, and the Export Bank of Denmark, construction has yet to start and the project remains in limbo. Even so, Cape Wind’s website still bills itself as “America’s first offshore wind farm.”  Not anymore…

First out of the Blocks

Later this summer, that title will go to the Block Island Wind Farm, a 30-Mw, five-turbine demonstration project rising some 3.5 miles off the coast of Block Island, RI. The $290-million wind farm is being developed by Providence RI-based Deepwater Wind and GE Renewable Energy, which had initially joined forces to propose a much broader program in 2008. Construction finally began in 2015, and now with the finish line in sight, installation of the turbine towers, blades, and nacelles began last week upon the arrival of the main turbine installation vessel, Fred. Olsen Windcarrier’s Brave Tern.

That 433-ft-long jack-up vessel had traveled from France to Rhode Island, with the five GE nacelles aboard. Brave Tern’s cranes are capable of lifting 800 tons and its self-propelled jack-up system can lift the platform to a height some 480 ft above sea level during installation.

“It’s go time,” said Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski. “We’re ready to bring this historic project across the finish line. This is sure to be a momentous summer – not just for this project, but also for the start of a new American industry.” Added RI Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, “Projects like the Block Island Wind Farm are the future not only of Rhode Island’s economy, but the whole country’s economy.”

For its part, GE is equally excited. “We believe this historic project will demonstrate the potential of offshore wind in the U.S. and create additional momentum for this clean and abundant source of power,” said Eric Crucerey, project director, Block Island Wind Farm, GE Renewable Energy.

Indeed, Rhode Island’s breakthrough may finally open the flood gates for other offshore wind farms being planned in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maine, California, and Oregon, not to mention, Massachusetts. On Aug. 1, in fact, New York state legislators approved a Clean Energy Standard requiring the state to derive half of its power from renewable sources by 2030, thereby reducing greenhouse emissions by 40% during the same period.

“This clean energy standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combating climate change… I urge all other states to join us
in this fight for our very future”

— NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo

“This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combating climate change,” said NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”

Extensive use of offshore wind farms figures prominently in meeting the 2030 goal, with the NY State Energy Research and Development Authority expected to release  documents outlining plans in greater detail. New York’s Long Island Power Authority recently supported plans for for construction the state’s 30 miles off Montauk, Long Island. That, too, would also be a Deepwater and GE collaboration.

Meanwhile, in the ‘old world’

No doubt looking on with some degree of bemusement, the European Union (EU) saw its first offshore wind farm built 25 years ago off the Danish coast. Dozens more have since followed, primarily in Germany and the United Kingdom, creating a center of expertise with engineering giants like Munich-based Siemens AG, responsible for more than 60% of the turbines at the top 25 wind farms in Europe. In all, more than 90% of the world’s existing wind farms reside in Europe, with the balance operating in Japan and South Korea, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

Overseas, offshore wind farms long have been lauded for the more frequent and powerful winds they generate relative to their land-side counterparts, according to industry experts. Some studies have found that offshore winds blow 40% more often than on land, which means offshore wind farms can relatively easily outpace wind projects on land in terms of installed capacity. This should more than compensate for the higher cost of undersea infrastructure needed to bring the wind energy back to the land grid.

“Offshore wind is very, very promising, but we really haven’t done it before,” noted Edward Krapels, founder and director of Boston’s Anbaric Transmission, a 12-year-old firm specializing in early stage development of large-scale, non-utility electric transmission and microgrid systems. “It’s going to take that industry a longer period of time to mobilize,” he added. “So my guess is that it looks more like 2025” before the market here finds its stride. Provided we get started now.

For their part, excited European manufacturers, consultants and investors just can’t wait.