How to build a huge wind farm

Along the Atlantic Seaboard, off New York and New Jersey, a stretch of sea 2.5 times the size of New York City has just been leased by the US government to six energy companies. These developers have one goal: to convert the 488,000 hectares of water into offshore wind farms to supply the two states with renewable energy.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced the sale Feb. 23 at the end of 64 rounds of auctions for the area known as the New York Bight. At a staggering $4.37 billion, it is the largest US ocean tract ever offered in a single auction. The lease’s huge price tag has been splashed through the news, but the money, much as it is, is only a small part of the story. A more complicated technical challenge is ahead.

Building numerous wind turbines hundreds of feet tall miles offshore is a massive undertaking. The Bight is expected to produce 5.6 to 7 gigawatts — enough power for more than 1.9 million homes — and take the U.S. toward the Biden administration’s nationwide goal of generating 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2030. That plan, known as 30 by 30, means building 2,100 wind turbines and foundations, laying over 6,800 miles of cable 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 domestic supply chain that includes factories, port upgrades, ships and employee training, according to a report by the national trade association American Clean Power.

There’s still a long way to go. “The offshore wind energy supply chain in the United States is evolving,” says Brandon W. Burke, managing consultant at Ramboll, a Denmark-based firm that advises developers of offshore wind turbines. “It’s certainly evolving at an accelerating rate, with increasing coordination between federal and state governments – but the reality is there’s still work to be done.”

Where do you build a huge offshore wind farm?

Two wind farm projects are currently operating in US federal waters: the Block Island Wind Farm, which serves cities throughout Rhode Island and generates 30 megawatts, and the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Pilot Project, which serves Virginia Beach and generates 12 megawatts.

Like these smaller projects, The Bight is located near the coast and close to cities with high electricity demands. It also shares two other main features. First, there are nearby ports that can supply the tooling needed to build the wind farms. And secondly, the region’s transmission grid can handle the electricity feed-ins. Additionally, New York and New Jersey have ambitious renewable energy targets — 9 gigawatts and 7.5 gigawatts, respectively, by 2035 — making The Bight an attractive option.

BOEM

The farm would rest on the wide and gently sloping outer continental shelf of the Atlantic. Here the water is relatively shallow, so wind turbines can be fixed to the seabed. The majority of fixed-ground wind turbines use steel tubes or grids that are set into the seabed, according to Burke. The blades are then mounted on these solid foundations. There are also floating bottom farms that are anchored to the seabed with chains. These could be deployed in deeper waters such as the Pacific West Coast, where wind farms off California, Oregon and Washington have been proposed.

Because of the sheer size and height, building the foundation and components of a turbine requires a great deal of thought. A single blade can be as long as 351 feet, or more than 124 baseball bats strung together. These extremely long turbine components are shipped out to sea after being built or assembled in a port to minimize time on the water.

Shipment of turbines in pieces

For The Bight, everything from the high water mark of the coast to three nautical miles is state jurisdiction, which means New York and New Jersey can independently develop the supply chains they need to build an offshore wind farm, Burke says.

In order to actually get these parts on the water, a fleet of around 27 ships is required for each offshore wind project. That can vary depending on the distance from shore and the number of 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 maintenance vessels – also called floaters because they stay on the water after construction.

The limited number of wind turbine installation vessels (WTIVs) means there’s a particularly tight bottleneck for new projects in the US, Burke says. A ship was named last year Charybids was commissioned for $500 million as the first WTIV to sail under the US flag. The 472-foot Dominion Energy-owned vessel is currently under construction in the Gulf of Mexico and will use more than 14,000 tons of domestic steel.

Rendering of the wind turbine installation vessel of Dominion Energy, owner of Charybids
Renderings of the WTIV Charybdis at sea. Dominion Energy

once completed, Charybids will fill a gap in the US wind farm supply chain and eliminate American reliance on European manufacturing. The WTIV is jacked up on moveable legs to rise in the water and provides a stable surface to carry heavy loads and install the foundations and turbines with cranes. Dominion Energy has already planned to lease its new vessel to Ørsted and Eversource’s Revolution Wind and Sunrise Wind projects, two energy companies serving 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.

The offshore wind farm industry in Europe and Asia is also making progress with its own renewable energy ambitions: in mid-May, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands set a target of 150 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2050. Burke says this underscores the need for the US to develop its own domestic manufacturing process, as acquiring components like blades for wind farms only becomes more competitive.

“There’s a serious need here for manufacturing these critical components,” says Burke. “What’s really missing is that we don’t have an overarching industrial strategy to position the US as highly competitive” when it comes to manufacturing wind farm machinery.

Investing in people and infrastructure

In response, the US has directed a spate of new funds, federal laws, and local policies toward wind power amplification. Utilities across the states, lured by the siren call of these actions, have begun backing the industry. The port infrastructure development program under the bipartisan Infrastructure Act provides $2.25 billion over the next five years to improve port facilities for trade, reduce environmental pollution and increase resilience to the effects of climate change such as the surge of sea level and extreme weather conditions.

“The offshore wind supply chain in the United States is nascent. The reality is that there is still a lot to do.”

Brandon W. Burke, Managing Advisor to Ramboll

At the state level, Burke says New York and New Jersey have decided to pour millions into existing or new ports in hopes that public investment now 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 if they don’t have their construction operations plans yet,” says Richer.

All these investments should lead to a job boom in wind farms in the next few years. “The difficult part is going from being unindustrialised to having a robust industry. How do you get those first projects off the ground while balancing as much American work as possible while also using European know-how to train the American workforce?” says Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind at American Clean Power.

[Related: The US could reliably run on clean energy by 2050]

Though estimates vary, American Clean Power has projected that by 2030 more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the pursuit of 30 gigawatts of wind power. Those construction, design, and manufacturing jobs should go to union workers, according to the Biden administration. Energy companies appear determined to work with unionized workers; The developers in New England have already signed over 15 different employment contracts for ongoing projects.

Such agreements are essential to holding employers accountable for any future wind project as the industry evolves, says Mariah Dickman, Long Island regional director for Climate Job New York, a coalition of unions. That accountability, Dickman explains, includes safety precautions, healthcare benefits, pensions, and market wages. “Ensuring that the domestic supply chain is a unionized industry through and through” will provide wind farm workers with family-supporting and community-boosting jobs, she adds.

For offshore wind farms to become a powerhouse in the States, local labor must be onboard. For Dickman, that means building trust in the community through education and outreach, so union workers in the energy industry have the information and resources they need to build on the seas. If manufacturing can keep up with the rate at which wind farms have secured funding, then 30 gigawatts could be just the beginning of the swirling turbines that will power the US for years to come.

About Christine Geisler

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