Perfect port an elusive goal for East Coast offshore wind

Industry urges regional collaboration

NORTHEAST SEAPORTS ARE inadequate to meet the needs of the offshore wind industry, and ideas for filling that gap could create tension between the sometimes competing goals of those overseeing the burgeoning sector.

“Developers have studied all the ports up and down the East Coast several times now. What we’re really looking for is large areas, good capacities, no bridges and deep drafts. And if someone has that, please come forward,” said Christer af Geijerstam, president of Equinor Wind US, which holds leases for offshore wind development off the coasts of Massachusetts and New York. “The problem is that it’s hard to find places that tick all of those boxes.”

Local ports will play a crucial role putting wind turbine parts onto barges and other vessels that will ferry them to the construction sites offshore.

The need for more port infrastructure will no doubt spur competition between localities, but at the US Offshore Wind Conference in Boston where Geijerstam spoke on Monday, industry captains and government officials also extolled the benefits of regional collaboration.

“The long-term success of offshore wind requires economic efficiency, so a regional approach,” said Philippe Kavafyan, CEO of MHI Vestas, an offshore wind company.

“I think we have no choice but to try to operate together,” said Paul Formica, a Republican state senator from Connecticut, who said he would use his post as the co-chair of the energy committee on the Council of State Governments to push for conversations about regional collaboration.

Two of the Bay State’s other key efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution – the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Transportation Climate Initiative, which is still in development – span multiple states with the goal of addressing the global emissions problem. The scale of the demand at issue during Monday’s conference – to put together the largest wind turbines in the nation that will be anchored to the seabed – could spur elected officials and political appointees to look beyond parochial concerns.

“In New England, we are a regional electric grid, so it requires working together when you’re talking about large quantities of new electric supply,” said Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Judith Judson. “Of course we want to see the supply chain grow in Massachusetts and get the benefit of those jobs, but I think this is a very large pie.”

Apart from a five-turbine development off Block Island, the US offshore wind business is basically still on the drawing boards at this stage, but the crowded halls of the conference at the Marriot Copley Place demonstrated the hunger from international companies to open up the offshore wind market in the world’s largest economy. Ports will play a key role in that.

“There isn’t going to be, in my view, a single solution like we see in Europe” said Doreen Harris, of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “There’s going to be a diverse supply chain building up across all of our states because of the fact that we are a populous, dense, coastal area where thousand-acre port facilities are difficult to site by a long shot, so in reality, when one state wins, we all win.”

At least part of the East Coast supply chain will meet the water in Massachusetts, where public dollars financed a port facility in New Bedford tucked away in a walled-in harbor that is already crowded with a scallop fleet that has made it the wealthiest fishing port in the country. The New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal was built to support the since-abandoned Cape Wind project, and now it is slated to handle about half the needs of Vineyard Wind, which is building a wind farm capable of producing 800 megawatts of electricity.

Lars Pedersen, the CEO of Vineyard Wind, estimated that the region would need the equivalent of about 10 other ports of that size to meet the demands of the industry. Pedersen said public funding has helped satisfy port infrastructure needs in Europe where the offshore wind industry is much more mature. He also said Vineyard Wind hopes to “start construction very, very soon.”

At Brayton Point in Somerset, the peninsula’s new property owner, Commercial Development Company, has razed much of the coal plant that operated there until July 2017, and plans to convert the area into a marine terminal that could handle some work from the offshore sector, said Stephen Collins, executive vice president of the company that owns other ports around the country.

One of the key benefits of New Bedford’s port facility is that there are no bridges that ships would need to cross under between the terminal and the open sea, but the channel is also fairly constricted with a narrow opening in a hurricane barrier leading to the inner harbor. At Brayton Point, ships would need to pass beneath the 135-foot clearance of Mount Hope Bridge, but the facility is otherwise roomier. Brayton Point offers 300 acres, with power hookups and two on-site cranes, and the channel has 34-feet of water, which Collins said would be plenty for transporting equipment to offshore windfarms. Deepwater Wind used mainland ports in Narraganset, Providence, and North Kingston, Rhode Island, to build its five-turbine wind farm off Block Island.

“There’s more business than we can all handle, and some ports are more suited at one thing than another, so it’s absolutely vital that we work together,” Collins said in an interview.

Whole turbine parts can be shipped horizontally, but when they are sent out to the windfarm site for installation, they are shipped vertically, which is why even towering bridges present a logistical problem.

Turbine parts can also be shipped in pieces – of, say, 20 to 30 meters – and then assembled on site, according to James Mohammed, president of Notus Heavy Lift Solutions.

To the north of the United States, Canadian officials are interested in potentially fostering their own offshore wind industry, and in lending expertise gleaned from developing tidal power systems and working on offshore oil and gas rigs in the North Atlantic. Canada already supplies Massachusetts with hydropower and the New England governors and the eastern Canadian premiers have formalized their cross-border collaborations on multiple issues.

Canadian ports are relatively close to the windfarm zones, according to Elissa Obermann, executive director of Marine Renewables Canada, and they could also provide developers a way to navigate around the Jones Act, which requires that only US ships be used when goods are transported between two ports within the United States.

Marine Renewables has commissioned a study by Envigour Policy Consulting to look into possible business opportunities in Canada for the offshore wind development to the south.

“In Newfoundland there’s the Bull Arm facility, which has built huge offshore platforms – gravity-based platforms, big concrete structures that are then towed out to sea before being plunked down for oil and gas activities,” said Bruce Cameron, principal consultant for Envigour. “Nova Scotia’s had two offshore gas projects, and Newfoundland has got a whole bunch of offshore oil projects. They are very experienced in the harsh weather environment in the North Atlantic.”

Locally, Sen. Marc Pacheco sponsored an amendment that was included in the Senate’s budget bill, which would require the Baker administration to report on its efforts to support port infrastructure.

The Baker administration, which is soliciting another 800 megawatts of offshore wind energy development this year and endorsed additional procurements from the industry in the future, has resisted an entreaty from southeastern Massachusetts elected officials to give more weight to onshore economic development investments in weighing the bids.

In a basically news-free speech to the conference in Boston, Gov. Charlie Baker defended his approach towards offshore wind development, which he described as being “urgently patient and patiently urgent.”

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“I’m not looking for brass bands and balloons for the next 24 to 36 months. I want to make sure that what we do here in Massachusetts becomes a benchmark for how this industry can become a major player over the long term here in the United States,” Baker said. “That will probably make us a little annoying to some people along the way. But what I would say to all of you is that we will be annoying because we care.”