Along the Atlantic coast, off New York and New Jersey, a stretch of ocean that is 2.5 times the size of New York has just been leased by the US government to six energy companies. These developers have one goal: to turn the 488,000 acres of water into offshore wind farms to power both states with renewable energy.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced the sale on February 23, after 64 rounds of bidding, for the area known as New York Bight. It is the largest US marine area ever offered at a single auction, for a staggering $4.37 billion. The giant lease price made headlines, but the money, as it is, is only a small part of the story. A more complicated engineering challenge is ahead.
Building numerous wind turbines hundreds of feet high, miles from shore, is a colossal undertaking. The Bight is expected to produce 5.6 to 7 gigawatts – enough power for more than 1.9 million homes – bringing the United States toward the Biden administration’s national goal of generating 30 gigawatts of wind power from 2030. This plan, known as 30 by 30means building 2,100 wind turbines and foundations, laying more than 6,800 miles of cables and building several highly specialized ships to do the job, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
[Related: Minimizing offshore wind’s impact on nature is tricky, but not impossible]
Meanwhile, the offshore wind industry is investing millions of dollars in a nationwide supply chain, which includes factories, port upgrades, vessels and workforce training, according to a report by the national trade association American Clean Power.
There is still a long way to go. “The offshore wind supply chain in the United States is nascent,” says Brandon W. Burke, management consultant for Ramboll, a Denmark-based company that advises offshore wind power developers. “It’s certainly growing faster and faster, with increased alignment between federal and state governments, but the reality is there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Where to build a huge offshore wind farm
Two wind farm projects are currently underway in US federal waters: the Block Island Wind Farm, which serves cities in Rhode Island and generates 30 megawatts, and the Virginia Coastal Offshore Wind Pilot Project, which serves Virginia Beach and generates 12 megawatts.
Like these small projects, the Bight is close to the coast and to cities with high electricity demand. It also shares two other key features. First, there are nearby ports that can provide the manufacturing needed to build the structures for the wind farms. And second, the area’s transmission network can handle the power injections. Additionally, New York and New Jersey have set ambitious renewable energy goals — 9 gigawatts and 7.5 gigawatts, respectively, by 2035 — making the Bight an attractive option.
The farm would sit on the broad, gently sloping outer continental shelf of the Atlantic. The water here is relatively shallow, so wind turbines can be anchored to the ocean floor. The majority of fixed-bottom wind installations use steel tubes or lattices inserted into the seabed, according to Burke. The blades are then mounted on these solid foundations. There are also floating bottom trusses, which are anchored to the seabed with chains. These could be used in deeper waters like the Pacific West Coast, where wind farms have been proposed off California, Oregon and Washington.
Due to the size and height, building the foundations and components of a turbine requires a lot of thought. A single blade can measure up to 351 feet or more than 124 baseball bats put end to end. These extremely long turbine components are transported to sea after being built or assembled in port to minimize time spent on water.
Ship turbines in pieces
For the Bight, everything from the high water mark of the shoreline to three nautical miles is under state jurisdiction, which means that New York and New Jersey can independently develop the supply chains they need to build an offshore wind farm, says Burke.
To get these parts into the water requires a fleet of about 27 ships per offshore wind project. This can vary depending on the distance to shore and the number of wind turbines, says Claire Richer, director of federal affairs for offshore wind at American Clean Power. These vessels range from seabed preparation vessels to cable laying vessels to service operation vessels, also known as floats because they remain on the water after construction.
The limited number of wind turbine installation vessels (WTIVs) means there is an especially tight bottleneck in the United States for new projects, Burke said. Last year, a ship named Charybids was ordered for $500 million as the first WTIV to sail with an American flag. Owned by Dominion Energy, the 472ft vessel is currently under construction in the Gulf of Mexico and will use over 14,000 tonnes of domestic steel.
Once completed, Charybids will fill a gap in the U.S. wind farm supply chain, reducing U.S. dependence on European manufacturing. The WTIV rises on movable legs to rise through the water, providing a stable surface to support heavy loads and install foundations and turbines using cranes. Dominion Energy has already planned to rent her new ship to the Revolution Wind and Sunrise Wind projects of Ørsted and Eversource, two energy companies that serve Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. Charybids will also work on the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project to expand this pilot program to 176 turbines, generating a total of 2.6 gigawatts.
Offshore wind farm industries in Europe and Asia are also making progress on their own renewable energy ambitions: in mid-May, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands set targets to 150 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2050. Burke says this underscores the need for the United States to develop its own domestic manufacturing process, as procuring components such as blades for wind farms will only become more competitive.
“There’s a serious need for this major component manufacturing here,” Burke says. “What’s really missing is that we don’t have a comprehensive industry strategy to position the United States as super-competitive” to manufacture wind farm machinery.
Investing in people and infrastructure
In response, the United States has targeted a flood of new funds, federal laws, and local policies to amplify wind power. Utilities across the United States, lured by the siren call of these actions, began to lend support to the industry. the Port Infrastructure Development Program within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act commits $2.25 billion over the next five years to improve port facilities for commerce, reduce environmental impact and build resilience to the consequences of climate change such as sea level rise and harsher conditions extreme weather.
At the state level, Burke says New York and New Jersey have moved to pour millions into existing or new ports in hopes that public investment will attract private industry in the future. Without continued public and private investment, he explains, a local supply chain cannot be built at scale.
“It’s pretty incredible that offshore wind developers are already investing billions of dollars in some of these infrastructure projects, even when they don’t have their construction operating plans yet,” Richer says.
All of these investments are expected to result in a boom in wind farm employment over the next few years. “The tricky part is the transition from no industry to having a robust industry. How do you get those early projects in the water, while finding that balance between as much American labor as possible, while still leveraging European expertise to train the American workforce?” said Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind at American Clean Power.
[Related: The US could reliably run on clean energy by 2050]
Although estimates vary, American Clean Power has predicted that more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the quest for 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2030. These jobs in construction, development and manufacturing are expected go see the unionized workers, according to the Biden administration. Energy companies seem determined to engage with unionized workers; The New England developers have already signed more than 15 different employment contracts for projects already underway.
Such agreements are key to holding employers accountable for every future wind project as the industry grows, says Mariah Dickman, Long Island regional director for Climate Job New York, a coalition of unions. This responsibility, as Dickman explains, includes security protections, health care benefits, pensions, and market wages. “Ensuring the end-to-end national supply chain is a union industry” will provide wind farm workers with jobs that support family and community, she adds.
For offshore wind farms to become a powerhouse in the United States, local labor will need to be on board. For Dickman, that means building community confidence through education and awareness so that unionized energy workers have the information and resources they need to build on the seas. If manufacturing can match the speed at which wind farms have secured funding, then 30 gigawatts could well be the start of the whirling turbines that will power the United States for years to come.