[Editor's note: A version of this article appeared in the November issue of E&P Plus. It was originally published Sept. 21, 2020. Subscribe to the digital publication here.]  

With more than 2,000 gigawatts (GW) of technical wind resource potential, the winds over open waters off the United States are capable of producing about twice the generating capacity of all U.S. electric power plants combined, according to the Department of Energy.

However, tapping part of that will require overcoming challenges—seen as opportunities by offshore wind energy players—for the budding U.S. offshore wind sector. Executives and regulators involved in offshore wind discussed projects underway and what is needed to bring such projects to fruition as the world moves toward cleaner forms of energy.

Challenges faced include policy and permitting, the environment and metocean conditions, and infrastructure.

The U.S. only has one offshore wind farm—Block Island offshore Rhode Island. However, that is expected to change.

“We have completed eight lease sales. We have 16 active all offshore leases that have been issued. We’ve approved eight site assessment plans, one general activities plan, and we currently have 10 construction operation plans up for review right now,” Brian Krevor, environmental protection specialist for Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), said during the recently held OTC virtual event.

He added six more are expected within the next 12 months, and leasing for five areas are being considered.

“So, you can see that there’s a lot going on right now for leasing,” Krevor said. “And we currently have steel in the water for the Virginia research lease, which was two turbines off of Virginia.”

New York is among the states advancing offshore wind projects as part of an effort to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Offshore wind plays a very key part in our advancing that goal,” said Greg Lampman, program manager, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “Our legislative mandated goal in New York State is 9,000 megawatts (MW) by 2035. This is enough to power about six million homes. And if you’re thinking about a 12-MW turbine, that’s about 750 turbines installed in the space by 2035.”

Challenges, Opportunities

Being a new industry is the U.S. is seen as both a challenge and opportunity, according to Ruth Mullins Perry, marine science, regulatory and policy specialist for Shell Upstream.

“It’s different than oil and gas in the sense that oil and gas leasing and the development of oil and gas resources typically involves a couple exploratory drillships or production assets,” Perry said. “But when we talk about commercial or utility-scale wind farms, we’re talking about ten to a hundred turbines in the water and the spacing of those, the orientation of those, matters from a technical perspective. But it also matters from an environmental perspective based on where those are constructed.”

Unlike the oil and gas industry, offshore wind in the U.S. does not have decades of coexistence with other industries operating offshore.

However, structures are less complex than oil and gas infrastructure, lacking subsea equipment and dynamic positioning and don’t require significant personnel, according to Perry.

“Because they’re pretty simple, these kinds of platforms offer up an opportunity where we can do more on autonomous environmental monitoring. We can put sensors on turbines. We can put sensors under the water,” Perry said. “We can do quite a bit of data collection using these structures. And the scientific community is really thinking about understanding the impacts of climate change and other challenges and constraints on the ocean.”

A challenging part of operating off the Atlantic coast is its sensitive habits and species, including endangered ones.

The environment itself also poses challenges, she noted, pointing out the presence of nor’easters, derechos and hurricanes offshore wind farm developers must account for.

Major components of offshore wind farms are massive, and installation can pose another challenge, according to Danielle Jensen, integration manager for Shell’s Mayflower joint development offshore Massachusetts. She described monopile-type foundations fixed to the seafloor at a water depth of about 60 m. “We’re going to drive that monopile into the seafloor, about 40 meters for stability. And then it’s going to stick out above the water,” Jensen said, noting the total monopile is about 330 ft. Then, the turbine goes on top.

In the U.S. offshore, Shell is involved in two joint venture wind developments—Mayflower and Atlantic Shores offshore New Jersey. Atlantic Shores is capable of generating 2.5 GW of power, while Mayflower is designed to generate 1.6 GW of power—enough for more than 680,000 U.S. homes, the company said.

Holding 50% stakes in each, Shell is working with France-based EDF Renewables for Atlantic Shores and Portugal-based EDP Renewables for Mayflower.

“We’re excited to see this build in the U.S. and we’re excited to translate a lot of our information and knowledge and experience from operating in the oil and gas side into offshore wind in the U.S.,” Perry said.

Regulatory Hurdles

Regulations are perhaps one of the biggest obstacles the industry faces.

Projects must go through state and federal regulations with tons of work required before reaching the installation and construction phase.

These projects are what we like to call permitting or development heavy, meaning there’s a front end of multiple development phase years before you get into capex, opex and such,” Perry said. “And so, during that time, there’s upwards of three to five years of site assessment to support project engineering and design.”

The 800-MW Vineyard Wind knows about regulatory challenges. The $2.8 billion project was pushed off schedule when BOEM decided to carry out additional studies on the overall impact of wind projects planned offshore. The two-phase Vineyard Wind, which is owned by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables, was initially set for completion in 2021-2022. Plans are now for operations to begin in 2023.

Vineyard Wind submitted its construction and operations plan in 2017. Its status is currently listed as under review by BOEM. “Vineyard Wind had a delay last year where they went from a draft environmental impact statement to a supplemental impact statement, and that was tied very much to the big interest and the big growth in the industry,” said Rachel Pachter, chief development officer for Vineyard Wind, which is also developing the Park City Wind Project that will supply power to Connecticut.

“Regulatory certainty is a challenge that we face,” Pachter said of the industry.

“If you know what it’s going to take to get through your regulatory process, you can make a lot more commitments and you know when it’s going to happen. But that’s not just true for us as developers. That’s also true for the supply chain, and the electrical grid is a big one for us.”

Grids, which were not planned for power from offshore, tend to have weaker links farther away from main cities, she said.

“It’s been slower getting this industry off the ground here in the U.S. The good news on that front is that there’s a lot to learn from how it’s been done,” Pachter said. “So, there are significant numbers of lessons learned that we take advantage of, particularly on the construction operations side. We’re seeing a massive growth in the available technology.”

Floating Wind Technology

The industry is learning from the oil and gas industry when it comes to navigating supply chains, successfully co-existing with other maritime industries, perfecting the hub-and-spoke approach, and offshore technologies.

This comes as the offshore wind industry also advances floating wind technology.

Floating wind production has taken off in places such as Asia and Europe, which leads the world in floating offshore energy, mainly from shallow waters. Principle Power is among the companies making technology available. The company’s WindFloat floating wind turbine foundation enables wind turbines to be located in water depths greater than 40 m, according to its website.

“We’re tracking about 30 gigawatts of projects globally that are under development,” though many are still in the early phase, said Aaron Smith, chief commercial officer for Principal Power Inc.

Smith said the company sees potential for the industry to grow in the longer term.

Citing the Carbon Trust joint industry project, Smith said more than 10 GW of floating capacity could be installed from 2030 and 70 GW delivered by 2040.

“That’s up from about 100 gigawatts installed today,” he said. “So, I think that gives a bit of a sense of the potential of the industry if we can do it well. I think speed and scale of this is really premised on having good and conducive political and regulatory factors that enable the industry to expand because unlike land-based renewables, offshore wind will always be subject to national governments, federal permitting agencies and these sorts of things, and so timelines tend to be complex.”