Rhode Island Proves Providential for Offshore Wind Energy

Rhode Island is the "Ocean State". Sailors know the power of wind.

Last week in Providence, Rhode Island, the American Wind Energy Association and the Offshore Wind Development Coalition hosted the annual Offshore WINDPOWER Expo. As I mentioned previously, this was my fifth offshore wind conference I’ve attended and it was definitely one of the best. Allie Brown, SACE’s Renewable Energy Associate, and Chris Carnevale, SACE’s Coastal Climate and Energy Coordinator, also attended. Nearly 800 attendees traveled to the Ocean State to discuss the state of the offshore wind industry here in the United States.

One of the unique aspects of this conference was the renewed focus on the value of offshore wind energy. Because of a natural phenomenon called the sea breeze effect, offshore and nearshore wind farms can generate electricity when utilities need it the most and when it is most valuable – during peak summertime demand. Peak summertime demand occurs when people crank up air conditions in the hot summertime afternoons and utilities have to respond with additional power for their region. During the wintertime, the offshore and nearshore wind resources naturally morph into a relatively flat, stable and predictable resource; much like an intermediate or base load power plant. This natural phenomenon makes offshore and nearshore wind resources behave a bit like solar plants in the summertime, and somewhat like coal plants in the wintertime – which is extremely valuable and desirable to utilities. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy presented a poster based on the analysis we completed regarding the sea breeze effect, and we won the “Attendees Choice Award” for our work. You can download our report here.

Another aspect that was new to this conference was the focus on logistics – specifically ports, vessels and transmission capabilities. The Department of Energy (when it’s not at the mercy of a government shutdown) has been working on an “Offshore Wind Port Readiness Tool” that helps local ports identify their capabilities of serving the offshore wind industry, and cost estimates for necessary upgrades. As an aside, the implications of the government shutdown were still very apparent to many of the attendees and the conference hosts. Several speakers and many attendees from various government agencies could not confirm their attendance until just a few days before the exposition. For an industry that is worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, one would think permitting agencies would be able to find small amounts of travel funds so they can help better regulate and expedite the private industry. But, some people still were unable to attend in part because of sequestration and the reduction in available federal funds.

Allie Brown visited Providence's three wind turbines with Women of Wind Energy, a non-profit that promotes the education, professional development, and advancement of women to achieve a strong diversified workforce and support a robust renewable energy economy.

Even with a shutdown government, federal regulation still applies to offshore operations. One little known aspect of the offshore wind industry is how legacy maritime regulations will affect development. The Merchant Maritime Act of 1920 (better known as the Jones Act) affects offshore wind development nearly a century after its passage. A portion of the Jones Act ensures domestic shipping vessels and crews are protected from foreign interests by requiring certain types of maritime activity to be done with American vessels and crews. However, since offshore wind farms are a fairly new industry here in the United States, we do not have the specialty vessels the Europeans have to install their offshore wind farms. But surprisingly, several ship builders in the United States have already built vessels for the European Market. The RD MacDonald was purpose-built by Weeks Marine in Jacksonville, Florida for the offshore wind industry. The KS Titan 1 and KS Titan II were purpose-built for the European offshore wind market by SEMCO in Lafitte, Louisiana. And Montco Offshore from Galliano, Louisiana has built the L/B Robert and are building the L/B Jill for offshore wind development.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those five vessels were all made here in the South – in Louisiana and Florida – building upon decades of oil and gas expertise.

Next year’s conference will be heading back to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the city’s onshore wind turbines serve somewhat as local celebrities and major tourist attractions, and home to one of the first offshore wind projects in the U.S. But with all the manufacturing, ship-building and offshore energy expertise here in the South, perhaps the conference organizers should look towards New Orleans or Jacksonville as potential conference locations for future years. Although, perhaps we’d need to change “Let the Good Times Roll” to “Let the Good Times Spin” - Laissez le bon temps tourner!

Allie Brown, Simon Mahan and Chris Carnevale of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy had a great time in Providence.

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