20.02.2023 / Greg Matzat
The Biden-Harris Administration has set an ambitious target to deploy 15GW of floating offshore wind by 2035 and become the global technology leader. Factoring in time to build the necessary manufacturing and port facilities to achieve this goal as well as secure permits and more, a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows the US will need to deliver on average approximately one 20MW turbine and the accompanying floating foundation every four days, starting the beginning of 2028 to the end of 2035.
It’s a scale of ambition that we’ve not seen in the US since World War Two.
Between 1941 and 1945, eighteen American shipyards built 2,751 Liberty ships measuring 134 meters long with a lightship weight of around 4,000 metric tons. At the height of production in 1943, three ships were being finished every day. Over the course of production, the build time dropped considerably, from around 220 days to just 39 days. All in all, it was a national effort of epic proportions.
In comparison, the current world’s largest prototype 15MW turbine is not dissimilar in size, with a blade length of 118 meters and a hub height of approximately 148 meters. A semi-submersible floating foundation to support it could range up to 100 meters wide with a weight of over 6,000 metric tons without ballast.
Achieving the Administration’s floating offshore wind ambition would also be a matter of national effort.
According to Catapult’s latest international market opportunities report, the US is not only in a good position to achieve its domestic target, but could put itself in the running for the industry’s top spot too. The report ranks the US 7th in the world for its technical and socioeconomic readiness for floating offshore wind development, only a little behind countries that already have sizeable fixed-bottom portfolios as well as floating offshore wind demonstration projects, such as the United Kingdom, South Korea, France, and Japan.
While the US’ offshore wind industry remains in its infancy, developers remain undeterred, with 40GW of projects in various stages of development. As the US’s vast onshore renewables industry has proven, it only takes a few projects to prove the concept and smooth regulatory barriers before the market will naturally accelerate. In fact, the US solar industry is now growing at such a rate that the Energy Information Administration expect solar power to account for nearly half of new U.S. electric generating capacity this year.
Swift acceleration from this point onwards will be absolutely vital if we are to achieve Biden’s goal of becoming the global leader in floating offshore wind. We have a long way to go if we are to deploy a 20MW floating wind turbine every four days! The construction of South Fork Wind – twelve 11MW fixed foundation turbines – commenced in February 2022 – nearly a decade after BOEM auctioned the lease for the project. If the 15GW by 2035 target is to be met, we can't wait 10 years after the first US floating wind auction (scheduled for December 6, 2022) to start deployments.
Although leasing is beginning to move faster, permitting is still a challenge along with where to bring the transmission cables ashore and interconnect with the existing electrical grid. While there are processes for leasing, permitting, transmission and interconnection, in order to achieve 15GW by 2035, these processes will need to be more efficient. The most pertinent challenge though is building out the local supply chains and finding and constructing sufficient foundation fabrication, assembly, and turbine integration port facilities. While the US Gulf Coast has ample offshore engineering and marine construction expertise as a result of oil and gas activities and the west coast has some very large shipping ports, the western seaboard currently lacks sufficient port capacity in terms of facilities for foundation fabrication, assembly and turbine integration to support the build-out rates required to meet Biden’s target.
To accommodate floating offshore wind, port facilities will need to be a minimum of 50 acres, but preferably 75, 100 or more acres, of flat uplands. The facilities would have excellent transport links, have deep draft and high load-bearing capacity quays to accommodate the foundations as well as large transport vessels bringing in materials. Upland will need to be free of vertical restrictions such as bridges and be near additional large port facilities to support other stages of fabrication. And of course, this all ideally needs to be within around 250 nautical miles of the permitted sites for reasonable tows.
There are further considerations of what is already a rather complex ask to meet the Administration's target. To ensure that floating offshore wind can be constructed as quickly as possible, it would be preferable that port facilities can accommodate the construction of any three of the major foundation types – tension leg, spar and semi-submersible – as well as variations of each. This will require flexible port facility designs.
And, finally, we don’t just need one or two ports as described, but several all along the west coast to service prospective sites across California, Oregon, Washington and elsewhere in the US. Building the Liberty ships required 18 shipyards. For this challenge we will need multiple port facilities also.
At each facility, the necessary port upgrades will run to the hundreds of millions of dollars; a major investment that will need to be funded collaboratively from federal, state and private pots. The east coast is already laying the groundwork for this. Ports such as the New Jersey Wind Port, South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in New York, and State Pier in Connecticut are demonstrating how to finance these projects. The first phase of the New Jersey Wind Port, which is expected to be completed in 2024, was part financed by the state and will cost about $400 million. As the nation’s first purpose-built offshore wind marshalling port, it is expected to create 1,000 long term jobs and to support up to $500 million of new economic activity within the state and the region each year, all while supporting New Jersey’s commitments to the energy transition.
On the west coast, the California Energy Commission recently issued a $10.5 million grant for preliminary survey, impact assessment, design, engineering and early construction work with the view to establishing the Humboldt Bay Offshore Wind Heavy Lift Marine Terminal. This is a major victory for the industry, but we still need several more sites, and billions more dollars in investment, if the US is to be in the running to become the world leader in floating offshore wind, as well as meet its domestic targets – it’s a matter of national effort.