DORCHESTER, N.J. - In his three decades servicing oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, boat captain Keith Piper rode out all manner of storms and gales. Still, he had never faced the elements that tested him last winter at a wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island. Subzero temperatures. Snow. A nor’easter blowing 70 miles per hour. Coffee sloshing in the pot and his 500-ton liftboat - propped above the waves on four hydraulic legs - vibrating from the force of the wind.
Given the rock-hard bottom of the continental shelf, unlike the Gulf's forgiving sands, any mistake setting the boat legs down and the impact on board would feel like being slammed head first into concrete. "It shakes everything and breaks everything," he said.
These are the discoveries being made at the dawn of America's offshore wind industry. Up and down the East Coast, developers and government agencies are preparing for the massively complex and costly challenge of placing thousands of wind turbines taller than the Washington Monument miles out into the Atlantic. The Biden administration has set a goal that industry players call highly ambitious, if not unrealistic: to produce 30,000 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind farms by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes. Meeting this goal is one of the few available paths for President Joe Biden to reduce the country's reliance on fossil fuels and fight climate change.
The obstacles ahead are staggering. The United States is decades behind Europe and Asia in developing offshore wind. Only seven offshore turbines are running - the five in Rhode Island, plus two in Virginia - and together the projects produce just 42 megawatts of electricity. China alone installed more than 3,000 new megawatts of offshore wind energy last year, more than half the world's total.
Far larger efforts are on the horizon, though. Vineyard Wind, the first large-scale U.S. offshore wind farm, is expected to receive its final federal permit from the Interior Department within days. It calls for 62 turbines generating 800 megawatts just more than a dozen miles southeast of Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Fourteen other projects from North Carolina to Maine are in other stages of permitting that, under a disdainful President Donald Trump, became a seemingly endless process.
"The Achilles' heel of the industry has been the federal permitting process," said David Hardy, chief executive of Ørsted Offshore North America, the U.S. offshoot of the Danish energy giant that has been involved in both existing American projects and has applications pending for several more. "It was, to be blunt, stalled under the Trump administration."
Hardy is encouraged by Biden's interest. A recent call with offshore industry leaders included four Cabinet members as well as White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy, with administration officials vowing to provide federal loans and accelerate permitting, he said. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has committed to processing the 14 pending proposals by 2025.
"We're taking an all-of-government approach to ensure that we are successful in developing offshore wind," bureau director Amanda Lefton said in an interview.
The aggressive timetable will require a massive new industry, with steep investments in new ports, boats, factories, and upgrades to electrical grids. The first U.S.-built vessel capable of installing the offshore turbines is being completed in Texas at a cost of $500 million. Until more ships are ready, projects in this country must rely on boats from Europe, an exchange complicated by the continent's own demand for wind energy and maritime trade laws here.
There are other hurdles, too, particularly intense opposition from some coastal communities and commercial fishermen. Even when that's overcome, construction can only move forward during certain months because of bad weather and the threat to migratory patterns of the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species.
It all makes offshore wind farms - multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects - a still-risky proposition, according to developers and others in the industry.
"Everybody's sticking their toe in the water right now," said Piper, the boat captain who's now based in Dorchester for that very reason. "But nobody wants to stick their whole foot in yet."
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Bill White leaned into a brisk breeze as he crossed the vast and largely empty expanse of compacted gravel at the edge of Buzzards Bay. There is wind here but so far little else.
Yet two years from now, he envisions 500 workers - electricians and engineers, longshoremen and seafarers, all tiny specks next to turbine blades longer than a football field, nose cones called nacelles that are large enough to hold elevators and 3.5-million-pound steel columns known as monopiles, which get hammered deep into the seafloor.
It is White's job to make Vineyard Wind a reality, and this lot at the Marine Commerce Terminal in New Bedford, Mass., a historic whaling community, is where it will happen. The site is the first port in the country built specifically to withstand the turbine components' crushing weights. Other facilities are being developed in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland. In New Jersey, a $250 million factory will be completed in two years and begin building the monopiles that anchor wind turbines in place. Siemens Gamesa is considering a future factory in Virginia to make turbine blades.
"These will be some of the biggest construction projects our country has seen," said White, vice president of offshore wind for Avangrid Renewables, one of two companies leading Vineyard Wind. "This will be a massive mobilization."
He has long envisioned this future. A veteran of the State Department and the Clinton White House, he spent more than a decade trying to advance offshore wind energy with the state of Massachusetts and then the private sector. He lived through Cape Wind, a proposed project off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., that was defeated by lawsuits and well-funded opponents, including a Koch brother. The first meetings to discuss the location of what would become Vineyard Wind were in 2009.
"It's been a hell of a long road," he said.
Thousands of wind turbines are already spinning across the country, but developers see greater potential offshore because of more powerful sustained winds, the proximity to large coastal cities thirsty for electricity and the space for vast activity.
White's company is a subsidiary of the Spanish energy company Iberdrola. Its partner is Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners out of Denmark. So far, European companies dominate these early efforts to bring offshore wind to the United States. Vineyard Wind's onshore substation will be built by a Swedish company, its cables by Italian and Belgian firms. General Electric will supply the turbines.
Developing the domestic supply chain and expertise to get U.S. wind farms up and running is one of the big obstacles ahead. When Dominion Energy in Virginia launched its two-turbine pilot 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, the only boats capable of doing the installation work were in Europe. Because of the project's small scale, it took three rounds of bidding to secure the parts and vessels needed, Dominion senior vice president Mark Mitchell recalled.
Even after a wind farm goes online, much can go wrong. That was why Piper and his men headed out last October aboard the Ram XV, a vessel that resembles a giant floating platform with 175-foot vertical legs. Its wind-energy niche is drilling and cabling work, and it was dispatched to the Rhode Island wind farm to help bury transmission cables that had become exposed by shifting sands.
The liftboat left the dock in Dorchester, making its way down the Maurice River, into Delaware Bay and then up the New Jersey Coast before turning east. During the four-month assignment, several major storms hit, at times forcing the crew to shelter in the Block Island harbor, Piper recalled. Temperatures plummeted to minus-10 degrees at one point, freezing the boat's water-making machine. A sewage line had to be thawed with an acetylene torch.
"It was brutal," said David Morgan of Aries Marine, the oil services company that owns the boat. "Very, very difficult job. Right through the worst time of the year."
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Those who oppose wind farms find many reasons to do so. The sight of them can be enough to sour a waterfront homeowner's mood, although the projects in the pipeline are slated for many miles offshore and so turbines will appear tiny, if not invisible, from land.
Environmentalists, who support moving away from fossil fuels to combat climate change, are torn. They worry about risks to birds, fish and marine mammals, particularly the North Atlantic right whale.
Only about 360 of the whales remain, migrating every fall from New England to as far south as Florida. Noise from underwater construction and increased boat traffic is the most serious threat posed by the new crop of wind farms, according to Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who uses buoys and underwater gliders to monitor right whale sounds.
The Biden administration’s goals will face the determined resistance of commercial fishermen, whose trawl nets and lobster pots ply the same stretches of ocean as several of the areas designated for future wind farms. This is no small business. New Bedford, Mass., with its scallop industry, has been the most lucrative fishing port in the country for the past two decades, taking in more than $430 million in 2018.
Wind farm developers have been negotiating extensively with fishermen, with Ørsted taking hundreds of meetings with them "to understand their concerns and try to adapt to work with their needs," Hardy said.
Vineyard Wind's developers have agreed to pay $37.7 million to commercial fishermen in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to compensate them for future losses. They also reduced the size of the project by 60 percent and agreed to place turbines one nautical mile apart.
"This is an unknown to them," White said of the fishermen. "And we've had them at the table, but there's still a lot of uncertainty."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Koch brothers as opposing the Cape Wind project. The opposition came from one brother, William Koch.