US offshore wind farm debuts, with lessons learned from oil industry

By Jonathan H Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



BLOCK ISLAND, R.I., Nov. 1, 2016 - Twenty-five years behind Europe, the U.S. launched its first offshore wind farm last week, thanks partly to the downturn in the oil industry. 

Using massive steel platforms and expertise imported from the oil fields offshore of Louisiana and Texas, the five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm built by Deepwater Wind off the Rhode Island coast is generating enough electricity to power 17,000 homes.

Marking the occasion, oil and gas industry executives shared a podium with wind industry leaders at the Offshore Windpower Conference in Rhode Island. Bill Blanchard, general manager for Houston-based Gulf Island Fabrication, which builds offshore platforms and ships, told the more than 600 conferees that “the decline of the oil and gas industry” prodded the oil industry into putting its offshore oil expertise to work by building Block Island's wind turbine platforms.

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Blanchard added that he would expect this interest in wind to continue even with an oil industry rebound because Gulf Coast companies have learned the value of diversification and “not being strictly tied to the oil industry.”

Another oil industry veteran speaking at the conference was Deepwater Wind President Chris Van Beek. After his 25 years with Dutch offshore construction company Heerema Marine Contractors, he welcomed the help provided by oil companies like Gulf Island. But he and other speakers said they hope East Coast states will learn to collaborate rather than compete to provide the strategically located local facilities and support services needed for a competitive offshore wind industry.

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) conference celebrated the nation's first offshore wind farm and debated the best ways to build the next 12 offshore wind farms planned for the East and West coasts, the Great Lakes, and Hawaii. All will be larger than the Block Island project and will be built at lower costs thanks to lessons learned in the first project and economies of scale.

Tom Kiernan, AWEA's chief executive officer, said it was “spectacular” that Block Island is now delivering electricity to the grid.

“We've got Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and other states making significant commitments or overtures toward offshore wind,” he told Agri-Pulse, and “we've got global leaders now entering the U.S. market, bringing their expertise and their capital.” He said the next step is to build on this momentum to have the “12 offshore wind projects throughout the United States that are in varying stages of development continue moving forward rapidly” so that other wind farms start generating clean energy as soon as possible.

Kiernan says having Block Island on the grid not only powers 17,000 homes but it's also important “from a psychological perspective” in that it proves that wind can provide electricity in a reliable way. He adds that with another 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind in the pipeline, Department of Energy studies show that U.S. offshore wind has the potential to provide as much as “four times the amount of electricity used in the United States.”

Both land-based and offshore wind will continue growing, Kiernan predicts, because their differences and strengths complement each other: “Offshore wind is at the moment more expensive but it offers important benefits . . . offshore production is highest in the late afternoon when prices on the East Coast are higher and there is greater electricity demand.” He says that with land-based wind already “the cheapest source of electricity in many parts of the country . . . land-based and offshore wind can work well together, as they can work well with solar and natural gas also on the grid.”

Denmark's DONG Energy, an offshore wind energy global leader since 1991 and the first company worldwide to have installed 1,000 offshore wind turbines, was well represented at the Rhode Island conference. Andrew Henderson, DONG's senior lead offshore wind energy engineer, was there both to share lessons from Europe's wind farm experiences and to support DONG's plans to build its own wind farms in U.S. waters.

Launching the nation's first offshore wind farm wasn't last week's only milestone. On the conference boat trip out to the wind farm, the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Abigail Hopper announced that 79,350 acres offshore New York will be offered in a December 15 commercial wind lease sale. She said that “New York is a critical component in building a robust U.S. offshore wind industry . . .  as we forge a path to a clean energy future.”

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To date, BOEM has awarded 11 commercial wind leases, generating more than $16 million in winning bids for more than a million acres in federal waters. Deepwater Wind and DONG Energy are among the 14 companies that BOEM has listed as qualified to participate in the New York lease sale.

“NREL estimates a gross wind power resource of 4,223 gigawatts off the coast of the United States. That is roughly four times the generating capacity of the current U.S. electric grid.”

In a third development last week, AWEA announced that with current U.S. windpower capacity at 75 gigawatts (GW), projects under construction or in advanced development are on track to add another 20 GW. Releasing AWEA's U.S. Wind Industry Third Quarter 2016 Market Report Thursday in Iowa, CEO Tom Kiernan said that “this enormous growth reflects what we hear from states, utilities and Fortune 500 companies all the time: Wind power is increasingly their first choice for energy.”

AWEA also highlighted Iowa's success in having wind energy reliably supply over 35 percent of the state's electricity generation on a 12-month rolling average for the year ending August 2016 while reducing customers' electricity bills, attracting new investment, and generating new jobs.

To help the public better understand the offshore wind challenges, AWEA has put together on its website 45 “poster” presentations on issues ranging from “Toward Cost-Effective Foundation Design” and “State & Municipal Stakeholder Influence on U.S. Offshore Wind Farm Projects” to “Turbine Integrated Mortality Reduction of Bat Fatalities.” To see these posters, click here.

The posters provide examples of the challenges involved in offshore wind farm development - and the massive scale of the projects. The poster on locally built Concrete Gravity Foundations (CGFs), for example, notes that such foundations can require 2,600 cubic yards of concrete in water 80 feet deep, rising to around 5,200 cubic yards in 200 feet of water. The largest foundations, it says, would typically need 10,000 tons of dredged sand ballast to secure the CGFs to the seabed 

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