Oil and gas companies expect to play a vital part in helping the US to achieve President Joe Biden’s goal of reaching 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030.

Deploying their offshore expertise and equipment in the ambitious endeavour will be crucial as developers scramble to take part in the buildout, speakers said on Monday at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.

“The skills and knowledge from offshore energy projects currently are absolutely applicable to offshore wind,” said James Cotter, Shell's general manager of Offshore Wind Americas.

Currently, only 42 megawatts of offshore wind energy are operational in US waters. The country is relatively new to the offshore wind market — its first wind farm began operations in 2016 — but existing oil and gas skills and infrastructure can be used to scale up the technology in places such as the Gulf of Mexico.

From proposal to operations, offshore developments take years to go through permitting processes, so developers needed to start putting in proposals and finding solutions to supply-chain shortages “yesterday,” said John O’Keeffe, head of renewables in the Americas at Denmark-based Blue Water Shipping.

A wanting supply chain

When O’Keeffe worked on the Block Island wind farm offshore the Rhode Island coast, the first offshore wind farm in the US, the team had difficulties accessing Jones Act-compliant vessels that were specifically meant for offshore wind installation.

Instead, he had to utilise oil and gas industry vessels to do the work.

The US lags much of the world in supplying offshore wind installation services, but jobs and skillsets can be directly transferred from the oil and gas sector to wind, especially in the US Gulf, where oil and gas infrastructure is abundant.

“The Gulf of Mexico is already an energy basin,” Cotter said. “I think there’s a lot of infrastructure offshore that can certainly be used for co-use or co-location of other assets.”

The US government drew a minimal response from global investors after reaching out in early June to gauge interest in potential commercial-scale offshore wind development in the Gulf of Mexico.

Germany’s RWE Renewables was the only offshore wind developer to respond over a 45-day public comment period to the initial request for interest (RFI) issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal industry regulator.

But the American Petroleum Institute (API), an oil industry trade association, was among the domestic groups to respond to the RFI.

The API noted that the US Gulf of Mexico, especially in shallower waters of the RFI area, contains numerous production and drilling facilities that are at or near the end of their design life.

The API said it supports utilisation of alternative right-of-use and easements to repurpose these facilities — where possible — to support the production, transportation, or transmission of energy from sources other than oil and gas.

Improving safety

In scaling up offshore wind, however, US standards and regulations need to be put in place to improve workers’ safety, speakers warned.

Although the total recordable injury rate (TRIR) for global offshore wind is declining, it is still significantly higher than that of oil and gas, speakers said.

The TRIR of offshore wind dropped to 3.75 injuries per 1 million hours worked in 2020, from 5.50 in 2019, according to the Global Offshore Wind Health and Safety Organisation.

As US offshore wind capacity is increased, the lessons learned will make the technology even safer, as long as safety is a priority.

“The offshore industry as a whole has a very long track record of doing very similar, very complex offshore operations,” said Nick Prokopuk, offshore wind business developer at TotalEnergies. “So we have to look to that and adapt and improvise for our specific solution.”

Part of that will be establishing a national standard and regulation for offshore wind in the US. There is an international standard for offshore wind safety, but that standard is not a regulation in the country.

Cheri Hunter, renewable energy program coordinator for the Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), agreed that safety must be taken seriously and prioritised as offshore wind is scaled up in the US.

The BSEE is working on developing a safety framework for the technology, she said.

(Correction: This article has been updated to correct the speaker's name in the photo caption.)