Offshore Wind Farm Will Be First Utility-Scale Generator in U.S.

Change is in the air for renewable energy in the U.S., as a new approach to wind energy is set to arrive off the East Coast.

WSP USA is part of a team that is bringing the first utility-scale offshore wind farm to the U.S. When fully operational, Vineyard Wind will generate 800 megawatts (MW) of electricity — enough to produce a dependable supply of energy to power more than 450,000 homes.

Globally, offshore wind has seen rapid growth in the past decade, and as the technology has matured, a specialized supply chain has developed and costs have plummeted. In the U.S., the industry has been slow to develop due to numerous challenges, including a lengthy planning and permitting process, limited offtake opportunities, and supply chain constraints, as well as the high cost for early projects. However, that situation is starting to change.

“While Europe has thousands of offshore wind turbines installed and operating, the experience here in the U.S. is limited to the Block Island Wind Farm and its five turbines,” said Michael Drunsic, WSP business development manager for renewable energy. “The first utility-scale offshore wind farm in the U.S. will face challenges, since there is no established domestic supply chain and associated infrastructure is not suitably optimized for offshore wind. But we are now seeing the emergence of a significant pipeline of offshore wind projects that will create a strong incentive to develop a domestic supply chain and infrastructure and drive down construction costs.”

A driving factor is the huge demand for renewable resources.

“Consumers and state policy makers are increasingly seeing the value of renewable energy as the need to address climate change becomes imperative and the cost of renewable energy continues to drop,” Drunsic added. “New York and New Jersey both have targets of achieving 50 percent renewable power by 2030, while California recently enhanced an already aggressive renewable goal to get to 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045. As states look at the options for meeting these requirements, they are increasingly looking at offshore wind as a viable option.”

The offshore wind industry has been slow to develop in the U.S., but improved technology and plans to develop a domestic supply chain are making it an economically viable consideration.

A Growing Team for a Growing Business

“WSP has a strong track record in offshore wind in Europe, having worked on over 30 projects totaling about 23 gigawatts (GW) of capacity,” said Matt Palmer, WSP vice president and offshore wind manager. “Now we have a global team with more than 70 people bringing a range of specific offshore wind experience, based primarily in the UK and growing in the U.S.”

To meet the expected demand for offshore wind engineering, WSP has been building a team in the U.S. that includes Drunsic, Palmer, and supervising structural engineer Hiram Mechling.

“Much of the U.S. experience in offshore structures, including wind structures, comes from the Gulf of Mexico, so it makes sense to have some of the team based there,” said Mechling, who works out of WSP’s New Orleans office.

“We’ve experienced some rapid organic growth in our first year focusing on offshore wind in the U.S.,” Palmer added. “As the business grows, we expect to continue to grow with it.”

Vineyard Wind Project

To execute the foundation design for the Vineyard Wind project, WSP is partnering with Wood Thilsted, a structural and geotechnical engineering consultancy with extensive European experience in offshore wind.

WSP will provide structural design, electrical design, regulatory assistance and project management; Wood Thilsted brings specialist knowledge in structural and geotechnical design of offshore wind turbine foundations. The project is being developed by a partnership of Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.

“By partnering with Wood Thilsted, we combine their best-in-class monopile design expertise with our capabilities and deep experience as a large engineering firm,” said Mechling, who serves as the project manager. To ensure adequate resources to effectively execute, the WSP project team includes engineers with hydropower in Boston, generation in New York, and renewables in Denver. “We have created a very strong team that has risen to the challenge of this pioneering project,” he added.

Much of the U.S. experience in offshore structures, including wind structures, comes from the Gulf of Mexico.

Shocking Potential

In Europe, offshore wind costs have dropped dramatically in the past few years. One of the key trends driving the dramatic reductions in cost for offshore wind is the increase in size of offshore wind turbines. For a given project capacity, using fewer, larger turbines reduces the total cost of installation and operation on a per-MW basis.

“As recently as 2014, the average size of turbines installed in Europe was around four megawatts,” Mechling said. “This figure was near six megawatts in 2017, with eight-megawatt turbines starting to be installed the end of 2017 and now turbines up to 9.5 megawatts are slated for installation in 2019.”

The trend does not seem to be slowing down with even larger turbines in the works such as GE’s 12-megawatt Haliade-X turbine with a 220-meter rotor diameter. “In the U.S., the first projects will be able to take advantage of these developments, leapfrogging earlier technology to deliver rapid cost reduction,” he added.

In addition to the increase in turbine size, the decrease in costs is also driven by maturing of the supply chain and intense competition. Here in the U.S., industry experts were predicting that these factors would eventually lead to offshore wind costs similar to what is currently being delivered in Europe, but not until a domestic supply chain and optimized infrastructure are developed. However, the recent announcement of the price for Vineyard Wind (6.5 cents/kWh) suggests otherwise.

“No one expected the cost to be that low,” Drunsic said. “What a lot of policymakers are seeing now is that, not only is this a renewable resource, it is also a viable economical option. For some ratepayers, the Vineyard Wind project will lead to lower electricity rates, which is shocking.”

Setting the Standard

While industry, international and European standards are established for offshore wind farms – and standards are in place to address onshore wind turbines in the U.S. – there are no established standards for U.S. offshore wind projects. WSP is a leader in helping correct that situation.

Last year three organizations—the National Renewable Energy Lab, American Wind Energy Association, and Business Network for Offshore Wind—organized the Offshore Wind Technical Advisory Panel (OWTAP), whose mission is to identify or create standards that can be adopted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency with jurisdiction over offshore wind on the outer continental shelf.

“Currently each project must propose a hierarchy of codes and standards for that project to follow, and each is individually approved by BOEM,” Drunsic said. “That is inefficient and creates uncertainty for developers.”

WSP has a significant presence on OWTAP. Drunsic, Mechling, Palmer and Sarah Wooten, an undersea cable expert based in WSP’s Newcastle, UK, office, all serve as members or conveners of OWTAP working groups.

The future of the business has never looked brighter. “When you look at the market and the opportunities in front of us, there is significant potential for growth,” Drunsic said. “It seems like every week, there is a new announcement that validates this view.”

[To subscribe to Insights, contact the editorial staff at [email protected].]

More on this subject