With construction of offshore windfarms about to surge, U.S. diving contractors are in demand
BY NICK FORTUNA
The old maxim that elections have consequences is undeniably true, and for advocates of renewable energy such as offshore windfarms, the 2020 election easily ranks among the most important in U.S. history. Regardless of their politics, diving contractors might soon agree, given that the new administration’s push for offshore windfarm construction represents a major business opportunity.
While divers will play a limited role in windfarm construction and inspection, industry experts expect them to be heavily involved in major construction projects to expand and upgrade ports up and down the East Coast. To accommodate the massive foreign-flagged, deep-draft cargo ships that will arrive at U.S. ports fully loaded with windfarm components, the nation’s long-neglected ports need a facelift, and divers will play a significant role in that work.
“The diving community is getting very excited, without a doubt,” said Allan Palmer, director of civil and military services for Aqueos Corp., which last year completed a diving contract to support construction of a windfarm off the coast of Virginia.
Former President Donald Trump crusaded against wind power, going so far as to suggest in a 2019 speech that noise from windfarms causes cancer. Two years later, President Joe Biden is taking a markedly different approach. In March, the new administration announced a plan to deploy 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines in coastal waters by 2030, enough to power about 10 million homes.
Currently, the U.S. has only seven wind turbines producing electricity offshore, while the rest of the world, led by Europe, has several thousand. Five are at Block Island Wind Farm, located 3.3 miles southeast of Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island. That 30-megawatt windfarm began operating in 2016.
The other two turbines are at the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, situated 27 miles east of Virginia Beach. The 12-megawatt pilot project began operating last year and can power 3,000 homes. Its success has led developers to propose a major expansion, with the goal of deploying 2,640 megawatts of wind turbines by 2026.
That project is among 13 offshore windfarm proposals currently under some form of federal review, The New York Times reported in March, and the U.S. Interior Department has said that as many as 2,000 turbines could be generating power in the Atlantic Ocean by 2030, enough to prevent 78 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions.
The next project likely to come online is Vineyard Wind, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, which is slated to begin power generation in 2023. That proposal calls for 84 wind turbines that can generate 800 megawatts of electricity in total. The project had faced delays under the Trump administration but is now moving toward final approval, according to the Times.
States throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Maryland, have committed to buying more than 25,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2035, according to the American Clean Power Association.
Permitting made easier
In its March announcement, the Biden administration designated an area of shallow water between Long Island, N.Y., and the New Jersey coast as a priority area for offshore wind development, a first step in the process of issuing new leases to wind developers, which could occur late this year or early in 2022, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Another proposed windfarm off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J., is scheduled to undergo an environmental review by that federal agency, the Times reported.
Palmer said obtaining permits has been the biggest obstacle for developers of offshore windfarms, with the process of getting approval from federal, state and local regulators often taking as long as three years. Developers have faced numerous hurdles, including environmental groups concerned about the potential impact on migratory birds and wildlife and fishermen worried about the impact on their businesses.
One of the first proposed offshore windfarms, Cape Wind, near Cape Cod in Massachusetts, famously was shot down after residents voiced concerns that the facility would ruin their picturesque ocean view. But with advanced technology making it possible to construct windfarms farther offshore, that “not in my backyard” mindset no longer holds water, so projects are more likely to gain approval.
“The Trump administration was more in favor of oil and gas and not so much wind,” Palmer said. “But the present administration obviously is very environmentally focused, so they’ve kind of pulled out all the stops on the federal permitting. I think you’ll see a big uptick in construction, and the industry as a whole is going to explode. We’re going to go gangbusters very shortly, and given 10 to 15 years, maybe we’ll outpace the Europeans.”
At the windfarms off Block Island and Virginia, large generators and windmill blades are installed atop a structure similar to offshore oil and gas platforms, with multiple concrete or steel legs anchored directly onto the seabed. Divers’ role in construction was similar to their work in the Gulf of Mexico, helping to level and orientate pilings and working on skirt pilings, Palmer said.
“Until the United States has its own installation vessels, it will be dependent on foreign-flagged vessels for offshore windfarm construction.”
Installations using monopile foundations, a common practice in shallow waters, will require even less diver support for inspections since maintenance technicians can enter the monopile and perform ultrasonic thickness readings and corrosion inspections from the inside.
“The Europeans are extremely proficient at building these windfarms, so diver intervention in windfarm installation in Europe is very limited,” said Nick Tanionos, director of East Coast operations for J.F. Brennan Co. “They have engineered the diving out of most of it, which they will do here as well as it progresses.”
Palmer concurred, saying much of the inspection work will be done using ROVs, though divers likely will be needed to replace anodes and to inspect and repair damage to foundations and boat landings from boat strikes and extreme weather events.
“There will be inspection work,” Palmer said. “They’re trying to do as much of that inspection as they can with ROVs, but divers will always be required.”
Multiple roles for divers
Before a windfarm can be built off the East Coast, developers will need to survey the seafloor, typically using side-scanning sonar, an important task given the amount of unexploded ordnance at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. During World War II, U.S. aircraft hunting German U-boats would patrol the East Coast, and if they didn’t find a target, they would unload their bombs into the ocean to reduce the risk of explosion while landing.
When sonar detects a possible bomb, UXO divers will be needed to identify it and determine steps for removal, which could include detonation in place, Palmer said.
Divers also are needed to help lay and bury the export cable connecting the windfarm to the mainland, which typically involves installing concrete mattresses to protect the cable and clearing boulders and other obstacles on the seafloor from the cable’s path, Tanionos said. Those were among the job functions performed by his old company, Specialty Diving Services, on the Block Island project before the company was acquired by J.F. Brennan, he said.
Most of the construction work will occur topside, however, using wind turbine installation vessels. At the end of 2020, there were only 16 of these massive vessels worldwide, and none in the United States, although toward the end of the year, construction began on the first U.S. Jones Act-compliant vessel, the Charybdis.
That 472-foot vessel is being built at the Keppel AmFELS shipyard in Brownsville, Texas, for Dominion Energy and will be built to ABS class. It will be capable of handling large turbines and installing their foundations. These installation vessels have cranes capable of lifting 700 tons or more as high as 125 meters above deck.
As windfarm technology improves, developers are opting to install larger – and therefore fewer – turbines, which means the installation vessels need to get bigger as well. Some of the vessels under construction have cranes designed to provide up to 1,600 tons of lifting capacity with a 155-meter hook height. Until the United States has its own installation vessels, it will be dependent on foreign-flagged vessels for offshore windfarm construction.
“The size of these vessels and their cranes far exceeds anything that we use in the oil-and-gas industry, so the first wave of windfarms that gets built here is going to be done with European vessels,” Tanionos said.
Cargo ships will arrive at U.S. ports carrying windfarm components, but because of the Jones Act, U.S. vessels such as derrick barges and heavy-lift barges will be needed to transport those parts to the installation vessel at the project site, Palmer said.
“The U.S. windfarm industry is starting in the Northeast, and a lot of the divers in the Northeast are unionized, so the unions are [excited], hoping to play a big role in the windfarm industry,” Palmer said. “The European developers are used to dealing with unionized labor, so they’re putting in place agreements to keep everyone onboard. The good thing is that although a lot of these developers are foreign, they’re really trying to use as much American labor and American resources as possible.”
Donald Dryden, principal at Dryden Diving Co. in New Jersey, said the unions have actively lobbied for licensing, helping to kick-start the offshore windfarm industry. They are providing specialized training to divers, millwrights and piledrivers who will be working on windfarm construction, he said.
“The European firms constructing the mills recognized having access to trained craftsmen in the numbers required for the windfarm projects made working with the unions a necessity,” Dryden said.
Big opportunities at ports
Dryden said commercial divers will see limited work doing ship husbandry on the installation, transport and survey vessels used in windfarm construction. But diving contractors will stay busy on port construction projects aimed at enabling windfarm construction, he said.
“If you look at just building the windfarms, there’s not going to be a lot of diving work, but all the auxiliary infrastructure is going to supercharge our industry in this area,” Dryden said. “I think we’re finally starting to run. We have a friendly governor and a friendly president who’s looking forward instead of looking backward, and this is creating new jobs, new infrastructure and an entirely new industry.”
Dryden’s company worked to help prepare the Port of Paulsboro in Gloucester County, N.J., to become an assembly site for steel monopiles.
“We burned off sheet piles, we did some repair work, we did quite a bit of inspection work, and we did some recovery,” Dryden said. “It wasn’t a giant job, but throughout its construction, we were continuously being called to come in. If you generate construction activity, you generate diving activity.
“Think of the Gulf of Mexico back in the 1950s and ‘60s,” he added. “That buildup of infrastructure is beginning to happen on the East Coast right now. So, there will be some work doing ship husbandry, but the real plum for us will be the construction work at port facilities. The actual pieces are so huge that you need special facilities to handle them. The monopiles are huge, and they’re building a special diesel hammer just to drive the piles, so it’s all on a scale that you really couldn’t handle in a normal port.”
Since most commercial divers get extensive training in marine construction, dive schools likely won’t have to alter their curricula to prepare them for this growing industry. Tanionos said the skills needed for divers to work on windfarms and the related construction projects at ports are “no different” from the skills they’re using in the Gulf of Mexico. Palmer agreed, and Dryden said inland divers are even better prepared.
“At this point, there’s really no task a good oilfield diver can’t perform on the windfarm,” Palmer said. “The typical Gulf of Mexico diver has the skill set to do a lot of this work.”
“It’s going to be a lot of typical construction – burning, welding, pouring concrete, driving sheet piles – that kind of thing,” Dryden said. “That’s pretty typical for an inland diver. A lot of our guys have grown up doing this type of work, so they’re going to feel right at home. It’s just more of the same.”