As the United States works to shift more of its power generation to renewable resources, University of Delaware researchers Sara Parkison and Willett Kempton have co-authored a paper in the journal Energy Policy that sheds light into the infrastructure required to meet targets for offshore wind power generation.
In March 2021, the Biden Administration announced a target goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy in the United States by 2030 and 110 gigawatts by 2050. States up and down the East Coast already have planned or have committed to producing as much as 40 gigawatts of offshore wind power -- enough to power approximately 13 million homes -- by 2040.
So, what's holding the clean energy economy back?
The UD report reveals that the nation's existing and planned marshaling ports, the assembly areas critical to building and deploying offshore wind turbines, will be insufficient by 2023 to meet state and federal commitments. Further, the available marshaling port area will meet less than half of projected demand through 2050.
"This study is not an off-the-cuff estimate," said Parkison, a doctoral candidate in marine science and policy and 2022 Knauss Fellow. "It is a detailed analysis informed by insights from industry experts, including vessel operators, port operators, developers and people who have been doing this for 20 to 30 years. And it shows that the industry is facing a real bottleneck.
"Stated simply, the amount of marshaling area that we have is too little and the amount that is planned will not be enough, creating a significant shortfall that will have ramifications on the growth of the offshore wind industry."
Supporting a growing industry
Parkison explained that to prepare for the growth of offshore wind turbines in the U.S., it's necessary to think about using domestic supplies and infrastructure, rather than solely relying on an international global supply chain. Currently, however, U.S.-based infrastructure is not robust enough to meet demand.
Major supply chain hurdles facing the U.S. offshore wind industry were recently reinforced by a National Renewable Energy Laboratory report, which echoed the risks of relying on a foreign supply chain as well as the shortage of U.S. ports capable of marshaling offshore wind turbines. The UD study goes a step further and quantifies how many acres per year are needed to meet U.S. offshore wind power targets on time -- showing how big the port shortage actually is.
A marshaling port provides a staging ground where turbine parts for a structure as tall as the Eiffel Tower can be housed, partially assembled or readied before they are installed in the ocean. The area is both challenging to locate and to develop.
A 2020 market analysis by Parkison, Kempton and nine undergraduate students, completed with funding from UD's Office Of Economic Innovation and Partnerships' Spin In program, found that a 1-gigawatt offshore wind project required 54 acres of marshaling area over 2 years.
In this latest report, the researchers compared the 2020 data against what marshaling ports will be available, how much area they supply and whether that supply will be able to support turbine deployment demand over the next 20 to 30 years. The short answer -- it won't.
In fact, the total planned and existing marshaling ports in the U.S. are expected to provide less than half of what will be needed to support the development of turbines over the next three decades. Complicating matters, this amount of available marshaling area will be strained to support multiple competitors vying to use the same marshaling ports, vessels and other resources to achieve their goals and timelines.
To avoid a domino effect, where delays on one project cause a cascade of disruptions elsewhere, the report offers three simple solutions:
Invest in more marshaling ports sooner rather than later,
Expand available marshaling area, and
Use existing and planned area in smarter ways.
Invest, expand and stay smart
Europe has been in the offshore wind energy business for 30 years. Its infrastructure is mature and includes fine-tuned methods for rapidly deploying offshore wind turbines safely, efficiently and economically. For comparison, the existing and planned U.S. marshaling ports comprise less than a third of the area and deployment capacity of Europe's top three most used ports for marshaling.
"And yet, in the U.S. we're looking to install twice as much power capacity over a shorter amount of time than the EU has accomplished over the last 20 years," Parkison said.
To have the best chance of success, it will be important to use near-term alternatives while building out as much marshaling area as possible. The U.S. will need to "make do" with existing marshaling area by using alternative methods, such as feeder barges situated offshore that can ferry equipment from port to installation vessels located at sea -- kind of like a relay for turbine parts. The approach, however, is not without its hurdles.
"Feeder barges are in limited supply, less safe and take longer to finish installations, causing other problems further down the line," explained Parkison.
Resulting delays could mean fees and penalties for developers that need to extend port leases beyond agreed-upon dates and will cause setbacks in "turning on" the power -- all of which can hinder other projects in the pipeline. It will have ramifications for meeting other loftier ambitions, such as the federal targets of 30 gigawatts by 2030 and 110 GW by 2050, too.
"At this rate, those targets won't be met," Parkison said. In the bigger scheme of things, it also will mean delays in the nationwide, multi-level attempt to try and mitigate climate change.
Doing more turbine assembly in port would provide less dependency on vessels that themselves are not keeping pace with growing turbine sizes. But in-port assembly methods also point to a need for more marshaling room for today and for future growth.
"You need ports that are capable of not only marshaling 10- or 12-megawatt turbines, but also moving towards the capacity for 15-, 20-, 25-megawatt turbines that are going to outpace what we currently have," said Parkison.
Upgrading smaller ports is a start. For example, a 30-acre marshaling port already exists in New England and there is a 60-acre port planned for New Jersey.
Considering larger ports will also be necessary. Marshaling ports around 100 acres are a more economically sound and logistically advantageous method of getting turbines out to sea more quickly and safely than some of the alternative methods.
According to Parkison, European developers have stated they will travel 200 miles for a sizable port that allows them to use efficient deployment methods. The conceptual Delaware port suggested in the 2020 UD market analysis is an example where 100 acres of marshaling area could be achieved. And while some have wondered if having a 100-acre marshaling port in Delaware and another 60-acre marshaling port across the Delaware Bay in New Jersey is too much, Parkison disagrees.
"If you look at the sum of all existing and planned area, it still amounts to less than half the area that's needed," she said. "So, neither marshaling port will pull business away from the other; instead they'll both be contributing to a massive market need."
Transitioning to a cleaner economy will take commitment, cooperation and collaboration, but the benefits to the nation, and planet, would be many.
"Meeting the Biden Administration's targets on time means that we can sooner provide an alternative energy source to displace more of our fossil-fuel-burning resources," Parkison said. "It also means another source of energy security -- more energy produced at home that's less reliant on international geopolitics."
The costs of waiting are greater than just financial or logistical. They include things people might not typically consider, such as the social cost of carbon to health, ecosystems and sea level rise, a particular concern in Delaware.
Claire Richer, director of Offshore Wind with the American Clean Power Association, called the report a useful tool to help justify funding for expansion of offshore wind infrastructure to Congress.
"The report demonstrates the need for a substantially resourced Port Infrastructure Development Plan in a budget reconciliation bill such as Build Back Better," said Richer.
Kempton, UD professor of marine science and policy and associate director and founder of the Center for Research in Wind (CReW), agreed, adding, "The report lays out the overall infrastructure needed for offshore wind deployment, quantifies shortfalls and identifies precisely what is needed to overcome them. This is significant because it provides states and port developers the specific guidance needed to build the infrastructure to meet state and federal offshore wind targets."
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