By Walter Dinicola, Anchor QEA Principal Engineer
October 29, 2020 — Offshore wind is a rapidly maturing renewable energy technology that is poised to play an important role in future energy systems along the coastline. If the United States is to fully develop its offshore wind energy potential, the right port infrastructure is critical. More and more coastal communities are advancing port infrastructure ventures as they compete to become centers of economic activity for the future of the offshore wind energy industry.
On a fundamental level, there are several key areas in which a port can focus its harbor strategies to be successful in supporting offshore wind farm development. As a newer industry, however, offshore wind energy calls for specialized equipment, services, and labor that ports will have to adapt to in order to be operational. Identifying the needs of the industry helps clarify the port-related requirements for offshore wind energy development and the potential utilization of available ports.
Port Redevelopment Requirements to Support Offshore Wind Energy
Compared to warehousing or commercial shipping, the offshore wind energy industry demands different services and support from ports. Thus, port redevelopment requires a major shift in the design approach, to accommodate the unique handling, transport, storage, and other requirements.
To support the offshore wind energy industry, a port must be close to the proposed wind farm site—offering minimal transit distances between the site and the potential staging ports. Access to the ocean is also key, so that massive turbines, giant concrete foundations, and miles of transmission line can be stood up and shipped out miles from shore. Additionally, the offshore wind energy industry requires ports that can provide a different kind of shoreside support than traditional current port facilities, as the equipment and proximity needs demand lots of space, both on the landside and waterside.
To properly support offshore wind energy staging and operations, ports must also have proper deep-water depths and open access for at-sea construction operations. A good deep-water installation and staging port must include heavy-lift capacity, adequate laydown for handling and storage of large components, and unimpeded access for large, specialized vessels.
Offshore wind energy farms structures are extremely large and require expansive spaces for assembling them onshore before they can be barged out. The massive scale of wind energy farm components creates special dimensional restrictions for both onshore facilities and navigation pathways to the desired location of the farms. For example, there can be no overhead obstructions, such as power lines or bridges, or any tight turns that might make it impossible for longer ships to safely maneuver and barge out the equipment into a deep area. This makes smaller ports that are near the open ocean highly desirable for redevelopment.
Finally, in addition to geographical requirements, in order to provide proper shoreside support to conducting offshore operations, ports require the right equipment, infrastructure, and proximity to a skilled workforce in order to provide proper shoreside support for offshore operations. A large area to store, weld, and construct the equipment to build the wind energy farms is vital for success.
How Staging and Operation Requirements Can Offer Small Ports Big Opportunities
Port redevelopment to support offshore wind energy operations can have many benefits for both the ports themselves and for the regions surrounding them. For example, port redevelopment requirements provide a unique opportunity for ports in the Northeast that have traditionally struggled to compete with large commercial ports.
Currently, many modern shipping operations favor bigger ports with deeper access channels and more dock space, putting smaller ports at a disadvantage if they are unable to revitalize and bring their facilities to a comparable state. While larger ports have a lot of space to offer, they already effectively utilize a majority of this space for commercial shipping operations, with little discretionary space to devote to anything else. This is a major opportunity for smaller ports, which are located along the coastline and surrounded by an abundance of land, to be able to support the infrastructure that offshore wind energy farms require.
Considering alternatives to commercial shipping use can also provide relief for smaller ports lacking the capital to modernize in the current competitive environment. As the push continues for ports to dredge channels deeper and deeper to be accessible for ever-larger vessels, most smaller ports find that they cannot afford the requisite dredging (nor do they have the room to place the dredged material) to make them sufficiently competitive. Rather than take on an insurmountable financial burden, smaller ports can succeed by refocusing on different services, including transportation and cargo. This offers another excellent opportunity for these smaller ports to maximize their efficiency by maintaining wind farms off the coast.
Benefits Beyond Port Boundaries
Offshore wind energy is the most viable option available for developing utility-scale renewable energy in many densely populated states. As the offshore wind energy farm industry continues to grow, this will create more opportunities for clean energy jobs, urban renewal, and environmental restoration.
Understanding the benefits and the requirements necessary to successfully support the construction, operation, and maintenance of offshore wind energy farms is critical for the successful redevelopment and revitalization of ports. Ultimately, while port redevelopment will require a major shift of port infrastructure design, communities and ports alike will greatly benefit from focusing their harbor strategies to support the growth of offshore wind energy potential.