US offshore wind’s green light – supply chain next steps

By Martin Dronfield, Special Advisor, James Fisher Renewables

Offshore wind farm

In just a few short months since his inauguration, President Joe Biden has made significant waves in the offshore wind industry. Biden’s early action to prioritize climate change, commitment to 30GW of offshore wind by 2030, and reignition of Vineyard Wind project’s permitting process is being met with a renewed interest from developers to establish a local offshore wind supply chain.

Although the current project pipeline may be too small for some developers right now, with Biden’s backing, the way forward is crystal clear. We can expect to see a significant acceleration in the number of developments that will now go through planning and approval, on both the east and west coast. Investment has also become easier to source; with many more consumers and businesses seeking ESG investment options, offshore wind is an attractive option.

However, with limited domestic experience in developing offshore wind, importing European expertise could help accelerate the US’s learning curve. That being the case, many European suppliers are now looking for the right moment to make their market entry. There are clear benefits to leveraging European expertise – for example noise attenuation – and there are also some critical factors the industry must get right too.

Hitting fast forward

Many learnings – both technological and commercial – will be valuable in the initial stages of developing a local offshore wind supply chain. Not least because of technological advances made by European developers and suppliers. Take the engineering at Massachusetts’ Vineyard Wind, for example: the proposed GE’s Haliade-X turbines which are manufactured in France, will stand just 195 feet shorter than the Chrysler Building, dwarfing the Washington Monument.

With greater hub heights, longer wingspans and improved subsea cable technology, comes improved capacity and as a result, more competitively priced electricity. Couple this with cost reductions at every stage in the lifecycle, project costs have fallen significantly over the past several years – as much as 29% between 2010 and 2019 according to IRENA.

To enjoy the same cost benefits, the initial focus for European companies entering the US market ought to be establishing a locally sourced supply chain and workforce while carefully considering the requirements of each state and their respective project pipelines. New entrants will also need to be cognizant of complying with the Jones Act for all of their offshore operations. In truth, the US already has all the skills it needs to develop offshore wind projects – the electricians, the welders and the marine vessel crews – they have just never been focused on that purpose, experience will come quickly with the right European supervision.

European expertise can help bridge that gap in experience, particularly when it comes to developing projects in harsh environments. The Atlantic is notoriously unforgiving but James Fisher, as an example, has over 150 years of experience in complex marine environments that it is now taking to new markets. More recently, a lot of this expertise is increasingly digital. For example, the use of hindcast weather data to plan optimal operational windows, reporting systems that track the performance of offshore vessels and activities and digital twins that optimize operations, maintenance and decommissioning.

Two offshore workers on the top of the windmill wind farm Adobe Stock 234461338

Noise attenuation and unexploded ordnance expertise

The eastern seaboard is home to several threatened or endangered species such as the blue whale, leatherback turtle and the giant manta ray1, which all need to be given due consideration to protect them from construction noise. It is in this need to carefully protect the marine environment that European suppliers can offer specialist experience in unexploded ordnance (UXO) that can be brought to bear in the US.

The use of explosive weapons in the first and second world wars, and the government munitions dumping programs that followed, created a complex challenge for any offshore wind developer seeking to construct a project in the North Sea. From phosphorus bombs to torpedoes there are millions of tons of munitions littered across the sea floor. They pose a problem for any offshore development – communications cables, oil and gas platforms and offshore wind projects – as each must be detected and carefully neutralized before work can begin. With the need to ensure these detonations do not distress, displace or disrupt local marine life, Europe has become a leader in noise attenuation technologies.

As an example, over the last three years, James Fisher Renewables (JFR) has developed a specialized bubble curtain technology that uses a new generation of compressors will smaller footprints and higher power outputs to pump air through a perforated ring mounted to the seabed, which encircles the construction zone or unexploded ordnance in a ring of air bubbles. As sound does not travel as well through air as it does through water, the use of a bubble curtain could halve the sound intensity of pile driving2 for east coast offshore wind projects.

JF Renewables has already been exporting this expertise with great success and is now trialing further innovations at Taiwan’s largest offshore wind farm where it is doubling up the curtains to provide a thicker sound barrier for even greater noise attenuation. Coupled with the use of pinging or soft-start pile driving, bubble curtains can significantly reduce the potential for distress, displacement and disruption to local marine life along the east coast.

A pivotal moment

The US offshore wind market has reached a pivotal moment in its history. With an administration that is committed to driving climate action, and a wealth of experience to draw from on both sides of the Atlantic, being at the starting line of a new offshore wind market has never looked more exciting.

With careful execution and European expertise to lean on, the east coast could be well on the way to having a fully competent and equipped domestic offshore wind supply chain in a matter of three to five years; an incredible time saving on the decade(s) it took Europe to develop these competencies in the first place. Equally, the west coast will benefit from Europe’s more recent interest in developing floating solutions, albeit not with the same immediate cost saving advantages.

By helping the US to leapfrog many of the offshore wind industry’s challenges from the past, not only will US projects benefit from smooth execution, we can also ensure things get done right first time.

Wind turbine field offshore

Published: 17 May 2021

Our capabilities