NEW BEDFORD – It sounds like a bad riddle: How do you build a wind farm offshore without using the specialized boats required to do so?
But that’s the dilemma facing the American offshore wind industry, thanks to a federal law from 1920.
The Jones Act, initially passed to protect maritime merchants, requires vessels transporting cargo or equipment between two U.S. points to be American flagged and manufactured. But because the offshore wind industry has not yet taken off in the states, the only vessels in the world capable of helping it along are manufactured in Europe.
That could leave Massachusetts stuck in a Catch-22, in which manufacturers don’t want to construct vessels for an industry that does not yet exist.
Instead, state officials say they are banking on the unique engineering of South Terminal to circumvent the riddle and spur an industry that will be based in the Commonwealth.
HISTORY OF THE LAW
The key to the Jones Act’s effect on the offshore wind industry is that it restricts commerce to U.S. vessels between American “points,” not ports, said Washington D.C. maritime and admiralty lawyer Charlie Papavizas, something of a Jones Act expert from his experience advising oil and gas companies. He said that the word “points” could have made its way into the law due to concerns that otherwise people could “pick up cargo somewhere that wasn’t technically a port and get around the law.”
Originally, the law only applied to areas within three nautical miles of the coastline, but that changed with the Outer Continental Shelf Land Act of 1953, which extended U.S. law, including the Jones Act, to the Outer Continental Shelf.
“Basically, anything attached to the seabed, either permanently or temporarily, is a point,” Papavizas said. “As soon as someone drives a pile into the seabed, it counts as a new one.”
That leaves the American offshore wind industry in a bind, because you have to drive a pile, or place a foundation, before putting the turbine on top of it.
And to put a turbine on top of a foundation is not an easy thing. Offshore wind turbines are both extremely heavy and extremely tall, meaning not just any boat can be used to put them in the seabed.
In Europe, where the offshore wind industry is well-established, special barges have been manufactured that jack up above the water level for stability while they drive piles into bedrock. They also have 300-foot tall cranes to help lift the turbines and racks to hold turbine blades.
But because they were not made in America, those barges could not be used to transport a wind turbine from port to pile here.
HOW SOUTH TERMINAL HELPS
So what’s a state like Massachusetts, which is hoping to become a hub for offshore wind, to do?
According to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s Bill White, the answer is South Terminal.
The facility has been designed with a bulkhead to hold 4,000 tons per square foot, something White said is meant to get around the need for specialized vessels.
“This is something we definitely took into account when we designed South Terminal,” White said. “We knew the boats coming in and out might not have their own lifts, so we wanted the facility to be able to do the heavy lifting.”
That means South Terminal will have what’s called a “walking crane” – one that can pick a component off a boat at one end of the bulkhead, and move with it to the other end.
Jay Borkland of Apex engineering said such cranes are “very unusual” in the United States.
“Usually you lift and turn, you don’t walk,” Borkland said.
To have cranes on the bulkhead means the facility itself will have to support immense amounts of weight – the weight of the turbine components, the weight of the crane and the weight of the crane’s counterweight.
Borkland said the team that designed South Terminal got the idea for walking cranes from the Siemens’ turbine-manufacturing facilities in Germany.
“They and Cape Wind lobbied us very hard to make South Terminal with a large-load capacity because they won’t be able to bring in those specialized barges with cranes on them,” Borkland said.
White said South Terminal’s special design means the turbines can be assembled on land and placed on a regular barge to go out to sea.
“Then another vessel can meet them there to pile-drive them in,” he said, noting that the pile-driving barge could be retrofitted from the offshore oil and mineral industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The gist of the situation is that the boats we need don’t exist, so we are building South Terminal around that,” said Borkland.
Jeffrey Grybowski of DeepWater Wind said that there are “a variety of ways” to build offshore wind farms in the United States without violating the Jones Act.
He suggested that the foreign jack-up barges could potentially be used offshore, so long as they did not bring anything from the port to the turbine.
“You could have a vessel jack up on the spot where a turbine will be installed and have another barge travel to the port to get the turbine,” he said.
He also suggested that there are vessels used to decommission oil and gas drilling rigs that could be “retrofitted to build turbines instead.”
“There is really no one way to build a project like this,” Grybowski said. “You need the right combination of ports and vessels. If you have a less optimal vessel, you might need a stronger port, but it’s a combination.”
In order for the offshore wind industry to successfully develop over the long-term, domestic vessels capable of staging wind farms are a must, he said.
“It brings the cost of construction way down,” he said. “You pay a day-rate for these kinds of vessels and if you have to get them from Europe, you also have to pay each day it takes them to even get to your project.”
Making a U.S.-manufactured, purpose-built vessel for offshore wind is something that New Jersey company Weeks Marine is working on.
Weeks Marine is one-half of the Cashman-Weeks NB outfit that is currently constructing New Bedford’s South Terminal. Weeks is responsible for all of the dredging and marine construction for the project.
Separately, though, it is also in the process of constructing its own specialized jack-up barge called the RD MacDonald.
Weeks Marine’s Rick Palmer said the company’s goal is “to build a very economical vessel for the U.S. wind market.”
“We are building the vessel to meet the challenges that exist here in the U.S.,” he said.
If Weeks Marine succeeds, the MacDonald will be the only vessel purpose-built in the United States for offshore wind deployment.
The barge itself, which has already been completed, has a 78-foot wide hull that is 260 feet long and 22 feet deep. Palmer said a crane with a 280-foot boom will be installed on the barge. When the barge is jacked up, the company estimates the crane will reach more than 350 feet in the air.
The barge will also have racks to hold turbine blades, but the company has not yet decided exactly where those will go. He noted that the company hopes to use the vessel for Cape Wind and therefore needs to be able to fit the barge through New Bedford’s hurricane barrier.
Cape Wind Spokesman Mark Rodgers said his project will comply with the Jones Act, but declined to provide any details or discuss Weeks Marine’s barge.
Palmer would not say how much the vessel is costing his company. He did say it decided to build it because the more than 450 barges, tugboats and dredges his company has in its inventory “were not big enough for these offshore wind projects.”
“We are marine contractors, this is what we do,” he said. “If this (offshore wind) market does develop, we want to be there and we want to be one of the key players. These projects need a vessel that doesn’t yet exist in the United States and we want to be part of that market.”
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