Wind Farms Jonesing for Long-Legged Ships Aground by Maritime Law

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By Bobby Magill

The U.S. offshore wind industry is fretting that a century-old maritime law will make offshore wind farm construction more costly in the U.S. than it is overseas and require risky turbine shipping methods for America’s first large offshore wind projects.

It is going to take giant ships with legs that extend hundreds of feet to the ocean floor to lift and install the offshore wind turbines planned for the East Coast. Besides being hundreds of feet tall, each is expected to have blades as long as a football field.

But there is no long-legged vessel in the U.S. big enough to build those turbines and European ships that could do the job are restricted by the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, a federal law that requires U.S.-built and crewed vessels to transport goods between domestic ports.

“The Jones Act basically restricts foreign vessels from coming into a U.S. port and uploading any goods or materials and then transporting them to another U.S. port,” Ross Tyler, strategy and development adviser for the Business Network for Offshore Wind, told Bloomberg Environment. “You can’t have a foreign flag come and drop off the turbines and take them out to the wind farm within U.S. waters.”

The first U.S.-flagged offshore wind turbine installation vessel will likely be available by 2022—several years after the next U.S offshore wind farms begin construction in 2019.

The logistical challenges of building offshore wind farms and complying with the Jones Act in the U.S. are expected to contribute to offshore wind power costing up to 50 percent more per kilowatt-hour in the U.S. compared to Europe, Bruce Hamilton, energy director for Navigant Consulting in Vancouver, Wash., told Bloomberg Environment.

Growing Pains

Figuring out how to comply with the Jones Act for offshore wind farm construction is one of the growing pains of a brand-new U.S. industry. Offshore wind is poised to grow quickly within the next decade as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and other states move ahead with plans to build offshore wind farms that will provide electricity to millions of homes.

North America’s first offshore wind farm, a five-turbine, 30 megawatt project off the coast of Rhode Island, was completed in 2016 and provides power to 2,000 residents of Block Island. About 13 gigawatts of offshore wind power are in various early stages of development in the U.S., according to Moody’s Investors Service.

“The Jones Act has historically been a challenge for offshore wind development in the U.S. because the transport and installation vessels are highly specialized, and thus expensive and logistically challenging to build,” Thomas Brostrom, North American president for offshore wind developer Orsted A/S, told Bloomberg Environment. “In the next decade, we expect some of those barriers to recede.”

Scott Farmelant, spokesman for Vineyard Wind, a partnership between Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners that jointly won a Massachusetts auction to build 800 megawatts of offshore wind beginning in 2019, told Bloomberg Environment that the company is considering “a few options” for complying with the Jones Act. He declined to comment further.

Costly Solutions

The solutions will be complicated and costly, at least until the offshore wind industry matures in the U.S.

Without an available U.S. turbine-installation vessel, the country’s first wind farm developers could opt to park a foreign vessel off the coast without ever coming to shore. Developers would then use a fleet of U.S. barges or “feeder vessels” that would shuttle wind farm components from a port to the foreign installation ship, which would install the turbines one-by-one, according to a 2017 study produced for New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island energy officials.

The more feeder vessels required to build a wind farm, the more it costs to build, Tyler said.

Using feeder vessels is a risky prospect for wind farm developers because turbine components have to be transferred from vessel to vessel multiple times, increasing costs and exposing the parts to accidental damage, Jay Borkland, a research associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University and consultant for Ramboll Environment and Health, told Bloomberg Environment.

It is much more efficient for the industry to use a heavy-lifting turbine installation vessel that can pick up components at a U.S. port, transport them to the wind farm site, and install them without the use of other vessels, he said.

Wind farm developers are expected to support the construction of the heavy-lifting turbine-installation vessels, or “jack-up” vessels, in the U.S. each of which could cost more than $225 million, require up to three years to complete, and 10 years for companies to break even on investment cost, Jesse Broehl, an analyst for Navigant Research, told Bloomberg Environment.

The growing number of wind farms on the drawing board justifies the hundreds of millions of dollars in investments needed to build U.S.-flagged turbine installation ships, according to Orsted’s Brostrom.

300-Foot Legs

Among the companies proposing such a vessel for the wind industry is All Coast LLC, based in Lafayette, La., which is working with two other companies to design, build, and operate a turbine installation vessel capable of carrying eight 8-megawatt turbines and components.

If the companies win a contract to build the boat, they expect to complete it by 2022 and build it at a shipyard along the Gulf Coast, but the cost of construction hasn’t been finalized.

“In terms of capacity, it would be one of the largest lift boats ever built,” All Coast co-CEO John Nesser told Bloomberg Environment.

The boat would have legs that extend 300 feet to the ocean floor to stabilize the vessel while cranes onboard would be able to lift turbine components weighing up to 1,800 tons each, he said.

“The market seems to be asking for at least two” of the giant vessels, which would operate roughly six months each year and install hundreds of wind turbines along the East Coast, Ajay Suda, CEO of All Coast partner A.K. Suda Inc., told Bloomberg Environment.

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