OPINION: The US has high hopes for the offshore wind buildout promised for the next decade.
President Joe Biden's administration goal is to increase offshore wind capacity from just 42 megawatts to no less than 30 gigawatts by 2030.
With the country a relative laggard in the field, scaling up wind power by such magnitude needs to be coupled with an equally ambitious development of the domestic supply chain, or promises of jobs and energy independence might start to ring hollow.
A need for Jones Act-compliant vessels adds more difficulties in meeting the government’s energy targets.
The northeast dominates the market of projects currently in development, along with planned supply chain advances, but regions such as California and the Gulf of Mexico, where offshore wind could have considerable potential, need to start from scratch.
The state of New York is currently the leader in new wind projects for both the supply chain and power generation.
Oil majors BP and Equinor also have a deal with the state to produce enough offshore wind energy to power more than a million New York homes with their Empire Wind project.
While these projects begin to address scale and supply chain gaps in the country, they are limited to the East Coast, and have not yet begun to address the lack of Jones Act-compliant vessels that can install offshore wind turbines.
The Jones Act requires a vessel that carries wind turbine parts from a US port to a project site in federal waters to be built, owned and crewed in the US.
Previous projects in the US got around this by shipping turbines and foundations from Europe and installing them without the foreign vessels ever docking in the US — an expensive process to say the least.
Even globally, the supply of these vessels is limited, with only 32 installation vessels in the world last year, according to a November 2020 report from Rystad Energy. And most of these vessels cannot handle newer generations of larger turbines.
Virginia-based Dominion Energy is creating the first Jones Act-compliant offshore wind installation vessel, but just one costs $500 million, and it will not enter service until 2023.
The contrast with the hum of activity in Chinese yards — where a growing number of rigs, vessels and flotels are being modified or built anew for wind farm installation — is a marked one.
Projects that are just entering their proposal stages now to meet Biden’s objectives in several years' time will all require the infrastructure and supply services simultaneously, calling for an anticipated need of more than one installation vessel.
Project development from proposal to operation already puts pressure on operators to start planning "yesterday", and bottlenecks in the supply chain are a growing possibility.
Even before the offshore contractors get a chance to show their mettle, surveys and permitting wait times alone may keep the industry from reaching its 2030 goal.
While the industry works to develop the necessary supply chain and installation vessels to scale up the offshore wind sector in the US, the Biden administration should perhaps step up work on a Plan B to fill the gap that could come with not meeting 30GW of offshore wind by 2030.
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