By Matt Palmer
With America’s giant leap from a modest offshore wind power total of just 42MW, to a far more impressive target of 30,000MW (30GW) by 2030, it’s no surprise that this is an incredibly exciting and busy time for what is very much a rapid growth industry.
We need good, talented people to meet this goal, so whether you are a young person keen to work in securing the global transition to clean energy, or a welder or engineer who wants to transfer your experience to a new industry, career opportunities are arriving thick and fast. We only have 7 turbines in the water at present, but with such fast and substantial investment, this truly booming new business sector cannot stop now. After personally spending just over two decades crawling up a very steep, obstacle-laden hill trying to make offshore wind happen, it is such a huge relief to finally be part of the revolution.
We’ve come a long, long way since the anticipated 468MW Cape Wind offshore wind farm, first proposed in 2001, that sadly, bit the dust in 2017. After years of painful legal disputes, having the plug pulled on it really hurt, but it has left a legacy of lessons learned that have helped pave the way for what we are about to see unfold in the next decade and beyond.
Two major barriers prevailed during the Cape Wind era; a lack of understanding by the public about how offshore wind would work and what it would look like; the second, very importantly, was the lack of political will. People feared visual impact, thinking that they’d see structures quite close to land. Some were told that if the wind wasn’t strong enough on certain days, then their TV sets would go off.
To be fair to the public, although turbines were never going to be very close to the shoreline, technology keeps progressing, so we’re already at a stage where wind farms can now be a distant 15 miles or more offshore. In the face of some alarming evidence about the health of our planet, public opposition has very much diminished.
We’ve now had a dramatic change at federal level, with a clear understanding of the need for co-operation between government and the private sector, and the need for regulatory certainty. For the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on America’s first commercial-scale offshore development, Vineyard Wind. This project is a major milestone for offshore wind in the U.S., and is the start of the steady drumbeat we now hear of projects making progress through the process. States from Maine down to South Carolina have embraced the change and led the charge. Further ahead there is also great potential in the Gulf of Mexico and on the west coast through floating (tethered) structures that will be required for the much greater water depths there.
So, we finally have that better understanding and that all-important political will. And as I mentioned earlier, we need lots of good, talented people, who can learn from those experienced European engineers who are already working here. We also need to get the supply chain fully in place.
From that rather meager 42MW to the enormous growth curve of 30,000MW and beyond, we have a lot of work to do, and already, predictably, disappointingly, we have a few negative heads that have surfaced to tell us that it’s not achievable. Well, the news is that those of us who worked so hard for so long on Cape Wind never gave up and we’re certainly not going to stop now. We’re going to try like hell to hit that target and maybe even surpass it. Even if we ‘fall short’ by a few MW or GW, we won’t have failed because of the magnitude of what is set to be delivered, with huge benefits to the USA and the rest of the world. And the more we do it, and the better the technology and the workforce becomes, the more we can drive down costs.
The scaling up since the early days of offshore wind is incredible. In 1991, the first offshore windfarm in Denmark had 35m diameter turbines on a 35m tower height, producing 0.45MW. Today we are dealing with turbines that have rotor-diameters of 220m or more on 140m high towers, generating a staggering 14 to 15 MW each. People will be able to stand on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, and as they look out way into the distance, see boats crewed by Americans, going out to service offshore wind farms. I hope they’ll realize that this is where their affordable clean energy comes from, and that we are now doing something quite incredible to protect our planet. Onlookers may even know some friends and family working in the highly successful offshore wind industry, because the job creation is going to be massive.
With some 20 projects in various phases of development, including off the shores of New York and North Carolina, there are plans, for example, to build a monopile production facility at Sparrows Point, Baltimore, which is the former home of Bethlehem Steel. This new factory could later support developments all the way down the windy parts of the Eastern Seaboard. In addition, there are plans for a new monopile facility in New Jersey, as well as a major construction and staging location for offshore wind in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Next year, Dominion Energy is set to deliver the first Jones Act-compliant offshore wind turbine installation vessel, and Great Lakes Dock and Dredge is building a Jones Act scour protection installation vessel.
The Jones Act (which was part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) is here to stay. It requires all goods shipped between American ports to be transported on ships that are built, owned, and operated by United States citizens, creating great job opportunities in our sector.
There are certainly challenges ahead, but with political will behind us and a much deeper understanding of the huge benefits, there is no turning back. We’ve demonstrated beyond doubt that offshore wind works, so we will be very much keeping the lights and the tv’s on. Technology for battery storage and high voltage direct-current transmission has moved on significantly. Taller structures will enable us to capture some of those very powerful winds at higher elevations. Seeing all this unfold after 20 years is extremely gratifying. With offshore wind, we can produce phenomenal amounts of clean energy. 2021 changed everything. And 2022 is already a wildly busy year for the offshore wind industry.
Matt Palmer is President of leading offshore wind engineering consultancy, Wood Thilsted USA.