At nation’s first offshore wind farm in R.I., it’s almost harvest time

Source: By Alex Kuffner, Providence Journal • Posted: Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The turbines, backlit on a calm day in August, were assembled at sea 

ABOARD THE LINDSEY E — When a gigantic crane ship mounted the final blade on the final turbine of the Block Island Wind Farm, Deepwater Wind definitively answered one question that had dogged the Providence company and like-minded developers for years.

Yes, an offshore wind farm can be built in the United States.

But with that milestone a couple of weeks ago comes more questions whose answers will determine whether history looks back at the test project as a success or a failure:

Will the five towering wind turbines start spinning without any problems as scheduled by Nov. 1? Will the 30-megawatt wind farm generate enough power for 17,000 homes as promised? Will the turbines and the complex systems inside them hold up in the extreme Atlantic Ocean environment for the next two decades as planned?

Deepwater and its project partners will be hoping that the installation of the turbines — completed without a hitch and ahead of schedule — is an indication of how those questions eventually will be answered.

“Smooth as clockwork” was how Anders Soe-Jensen, CEO of General Electric’s Offshore Wind unit, the manufacturer of the turbines, described the installation process.

Soe-Jensen spoke on a clear day in August when he and Deepwater CEO Jeffrey Grybowski took successive boat trips to the site of the wind farm about three miles southeast of Block Island to watch the completion of the fourth turbine. The work that day would turn out to be emblematic of the entire 2½-week installation of all five turbines.

The two lower sections of the turbine tower had gone up with ease a couple of days before. The third tower piece had been lifted into place the previous day and was followed in the early-morning darkness by the nacelle that houses the electric generator at the heart of the turbine.

By mid-morning, then the boat carrying Grybowski steered alongside the turbine’s steel foundation, the first blade was being hoisted. Three hours later, the boat returned with Soe-Jensen and the second blade was already going in. And that evening, the third blade went up.

Step by step, it appeared as straightforward as assembling the pieces of an Erector set.

Long time coming

Of course, the project hasn’t been that easy. Far from it. The $300-million wind farm had been in the works for nearly a decade before offshore construction started last year. Two years went into planning just the installation of the turbines — the towers, nacelles and blades.

Successfully implementing that plan may be an achievement in itself, but it proves nothing yet.

“I think we’re closer to proving something,” Grybowski said in a recent interview. “The goal wasn’t just to build something, but to build something that produces energy. And I think the steps remaining are very achievable, but I don’t want to lose focus on that.”

He has learned to be cautious. Even though construction is over, about two dozen technicians are still working at the project site every day to bring the turbines into operation and connect them to the electric grid. Grybowski knows from experience that working at sea is unpredictable.

Last year, during the first round of construction to set in place the steel foundations, Deepwater experienced all the pitfalls of offshore work. Some of the problems were due to the nature of that part of the project. In the offshore wind business, turbine foundations are generally much harder to install than the turbines themselves.

All of Deepwater’s five foundations are of the same latticework “jacket” design, but the dimensions of each one are different, matching the different water depths across the project site, which stretches two miles in an arc that follows the contour of the Block Island shoreline.

The uneven and rocky underwater geology also changes across the site, which added a level of uncertainty to the pile-driving work that was needed to pin the foundations to the sea bottom.

But other factors complicated the installation, including the weather. High winds and churning waves shut down work frequently. The worst stretch occurred in August and September, when Deepwater lost nearly three weeks to a string of storms.

Equipment choices also played a part. Deepwater had originally planned to use only floating crane ships from the Northeast to move the heavy foundation sections, but after the vessels struggled in rough seas, the company had to bring in a jack-up barge from the Gulf of Mexico that could lift itself out of the water on retractable legs for extra stability.

Human error was also a factor. One of the foundations had to be removed for repairs after a barge ran into it.

Despite the problems, all of the foundations were eventually set in place by November, weeks later than expected, but the delay had no impact on the overall project timeline.

Deepwater had gotten through the hardest part of the project, weathering the storm both figuratively and literally.

Smooth sailing

In contrast to what happened in 2015, getting the wind turbines on top of the foundations was, well, a breeze.

Except for a few days of storms in mid-August that made it unsafe to lift the unwieldy turbine components, the weather over the second round of construction was as close to perfect as possible.

But even 6-foot seas wouldn’t have put a stop to the activity. After what happened last year, Deepwater decided to bring in three jack-up vessels for this summer’s work: two from Louisiana that were built for the Gulf’s oil and gas industry, the Liftboats Caitlyn and Paul, both owned by Montco Offshore; and the third from Norway that specializes in installing wind turbines at sea, the Brave Tern, owned by Fred. Olsen Windcarrier.

The Caitlyn and Paul were modified as transport barges to carry the turbines in pieces from the Port of Providence, where they had been finished and stored over the winter and spring. The Brave Tern was tasked with doing the heavy lifting at sea.

The six-megawatt Haliade-model wind turbines fabricated by General Electric, which stand nearly 600 feet tall when their blade tips are at the highest point, are among the largest in the world, and no ship in the United States could have handled them.

The Brave Tern, on the other hand, was built for turbines of that size. At 433 feet, the ship is longer than a football field. From the deck of the vessel, its crane can reach higher than the Statue of Liberty and can lift as much as 800 tons. The ship’s movements are controlled by a GPS-guided jet propulsion system. Since 2012, it has been used to install 200 offshore wind turbines in Europe, including a similarly large Haliade in Belgian waters two years ago.

After its arrival off Block Island on Aug. 2, the Brave Tern remained at the site throughout construction, setting up alongside one foundation after another and installing the turbines section by section while the Caitlyn and the Paul ferried pieces from Providence.

The work played out nearly identically to installations in Europe, said Eskil Roset, project manager for Fred. Olsen Windcarrier. The only difference was that the Brave Tern usually works alone, transporting components as well as installing them. Maneuvering the Brave Tern between the foundations and the other vessels was a first, he said.

“It’s like parking a huge ship in a small garage,” he said.

But in the end there were no difficulties — and, thankfully for Deepwater, no more collisions.

It’s worth noting the international nature of the project. Deepwater is headquartered in Providence and Grybowski is a Cumberland native, but company president Chris Van Beek is a Dutch veteran of the North Sea oil industry. The project workforce has included ironworkers and pipefitters from Rhode Island, sailors from Louisiana, Norway and Great Britain, and technicians from Denmark, France and Spain.

Many other nationalities were also involved in building parts of the wind farm. The electric cables were made in South Korea, the foundations in Louisiana and Rhode Island, the turbine towers in Spain, the blades in Denmark and the nacelles in France.

“It was really a mix because this is such a global industry,” Grybowski said.

When the work started this summer, Deepwater had hoped to wrap up construction by Aug. 22. Just after 4 p.m. on Aug. 18, the final turbine was finished.

“I had been waiting for that moment for a long time,” Grybowski said.

Its job done, the Brave Tern started the 3,600-mile journey back across the Atlantic to a port in Denmark two weeks ago. The Paul and Caitlyn headed back to the Gulf a few days later.

What’s next?

Construction has wrapped up, but it will still be weeks until the wind farm goes into operation, sending power first to Block Island, where it will replace the output of the local utility’s diesel generators, and then on to the mainland through an underwater transmission cable. (That cable will send power back the other way on days when the wind isn’t blowing.)

Commissioning the project is an exhaustive process led by crews from General Electric who have been at work since the first turbine went up.

The technicians are checking the wiring and circuits within the turbines to ensure everything is seamless. They are powering up the turbines and testing different systems one at a time, and then in concert with each other. They are running through the computer controls and software. Some of those tests were done while the turbines were stored in pieces at ProvPort, but many more tests are still required.

And soon the GE workers will do spin tests on each turbine, ensuring the blades catch the wind as they’re supposed to. They will assess the performance of the generators connected to the rotors and will gradually ramp up power. During testing, the turbines may spin intermittently, stop and then spin again.

“We’ve built the first offshore wind turbines in the U.S.,” Grybowski said. “We have to connect them to the electric grid for the first time. There are still a couple tests that we need to pass.”

How the Block Island Wind Farm performs could determine how the nascent offshore wind industry in the United States plays out. Starting with the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts in 2001, a parade of proposals along the Atlantic coast have come and gone, stymied in the face of court challenges, regulatory uncertainty and financial struggles. But there has been progress in recent years as the federal government has streamlined its permitting process and a new generation of developers has won leases in ocean waters up and down the coast.

Many in the industry see new hope in state policies supporting renewable energy, most recently the legislation signed into law by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker in early August that requires utilities to sign long-term contracts to buy a total of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power. A similar law passed in Rhode Island in 2009 — on a much smaller scale — paved the way for the turbines off Block Island.

“I am wholly optimistic about the U.S. market, especially with the legislation in Massachusetts,” said GE’s Soe-Jensen.

The new law, which requires the first round of solicitations to be issued by June 30, 2017, could be a boost to a group of companies exploring projects in the waters off Massachusetts, including Dong Energy, OffshoreMW and Deepwater, which has a federal lease for a stretch of waters in Rhode Island Sound that could generate as much as 1,000 megawatts of power — more than 30 times the size of the Block Island project.

The company envisions developing the site in stages and is currently in negotiations with the Long Island Power Authority to sell power from a 90-megawatt array of turbines that could constitute the first phase of development. Other phases could be developed to provide power to Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Lingering opposition

But any of the larger projects are still years away. On the August day when Grybowski headed out to sea aboard the Lindsey E, he was focused only on finishing the Block Island Wind Farm.

Mike Ernst, the captain of the boat, steered over 5-foot swells as he passed the three turbines that had already been completed. Viewed from the side, the tips of their stationary blades curved inward like flower petals.

The rocky slopes of the Mohegan Bluffs were visible from the boat. Sightseers have been gathering at the Southeast Light above the bluffs to see the wind farm, though not everyone, including some residents with views of the turbines, has been pleased with the project.

“I think the only opposition that remains are the people who don’t like the look of the wind farm,” Grybowski said. “That’s the one thing I cannot change.”

But there are other opponents who point to the high price of power from the project. Utility company National Grid is paying a starting price of 24.4 cents per kilowatt hour for power. That is cheaper than the price on Block Island, but it is nearly three times the blended rate National Grid currently charges on mainland Rhode Island for power from both conventional and renewable sources. Grybowski has promised that rates for the power from the far-more-numerous Rhode Island Sound turbines would be much lower.

Ernst slowed the boat near the fourth foundation, the turbine rising high above it, incomplete and somewhat gawky without its three graceful blades.

The Brave Tern was positioned about 65 feet from the bright yellow steel structure with a gangplank connecting them. The ship’s hull sat 72 feet above the water on four telescopic legs that extended 84 feet to the ocean floor.

The Paul stood nearby, looking more like an oil platform than a ship, the three turbine blades stacked in a cradle on its deck.

Although putting a turbine together is relatively uncomplicated, attaching the long, flexible blades can be tricky. Like a sail, they are designed to catch the wind, which doesn’t make it easy to handle them. The work can’t be done in even moderate winds.

“That’s the big irony,” Grybowski said with a smile.

But on this morning, the air was still and the crane on the Brave Tern slowly lowered a special gripper known as a “blade yoke” to the first 29-ton blade.

“Here we go,” Grybowski said.

The yoke gently took hold of the hollow, composite blade, like carrying an egg — firm enough that it didn’t drop it but not so firm as to crack it — and lifted it to the hub of the turbine 347 feet above the water. A worker inside the hub helped guide the blade slowly into place, matching the 128 giant bolts around its base with corresponding holes inside the hub.

“A little closer … a little closer,” Grybowski said to himself.

Then it was in. Using power torquing equipment, a pair of workers would secure the 3-foot-long bolts with nuts. And then the crews on the Brave Tern and the Paul would move on to the next blade.

“When you see this, you think it’s so simple,” Grybowski said.

But then that’s how it’s been lately for Deepwater.