Scaling up offshore wind, in New Bedford and beyond

Source: By Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe • Posted: Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Siemens workers dwarfed by offshore wind blades and towers being deployed from Hull, England. More than 6,000 jobs are projected to come to the Hull and Grimsby area, making it the center of the United Kingdom’s offshore wind industry.
Derrick Z. JacksonSiemens workers dwarfed by offshore wind blades and towers being deployed from Hull, England. More than 6,000 jobs are projected to come to the Hull and Grimsby area, making it the center of the United Kingdom’s offshore wind industry.

Jaws dropped at every turn as members of New Bedford’s trade mission rode a bus around Siemens’ new offshore wind blade factory in Hull, England. Scores of blades lay across a vast lot stretching to the horizon. One blade alone was 250 feet long.

That was the introduction last spring to a complex where blades, house-sized turbine nacelles, and skyscraper-high towers were being loaded onto two huge installation vessels. This was all part of a $400 million investment by Siemens and Associated British Ports to transform dilapidated fishing and coal docks into a platform for offshore wind. The footprint of the vast facility could swallow up 12 Gillette football stadiums.

That raised the major question of whether this was at all replicable back home. New Bedford has the Marine Commerce Port Terminal built by the state for $113 million. It is the first dock in the United States sturdy enough to deploy offshore wind components.

The terminal is enjoying its first usage for offshore wind, as survey ships for proposed projects a dozen miles south of Martha’s Vineyard study seabed conditions and plan transmission routes. All the developers for Massachusetts’ first wind projects have signed agreements to deploy from New Bedford.

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But for all that, the port terminal is minuscule compared to what officials saw in Hull. New Bedford’s facility could hold only a little more than one Gillette Stadium.

Massachusetts will need to cobble together more land and facilities to be — as state renewable energy officials have long hoped — America’s first offshore wind industry hub. Last week, the Clean Energy Center released an assessment of several hundred acres that could be used for the industry.

The study focused on 18 sites in Boston, Quincy, New Bedford, Somerset, and Fall River. The biggest sites, totaling about 500 acres, are the recently decommissioned Brayton Point coal-fired power plant in Somerset, the former Quincy Shipyard, and the Boston Autoport in Charlestown. But many other properties exist in 20-acre and 30-acre parcels among the regions’ other defunct oil terminals and coal power plants and old mills, factories, and piers.

That makes it possible for the region to build, store, and deploy offshore wind components, said Bill White, the senior director for offshore wind for the Clean Energy Center. Local and international interest in the industry is so intense that last spring a supply-chain conference held in Newton drew nearly 150 companies.

“Where different businesses might go, no one knows,” White said. “Our job is to make it as easy as we can for them to decide. We’re trying to light their path and give them a road map.”

Jay Borkland, a Tufts University environmental engineering expert who was in the delegation to England, said, “You look at the blade plant [in Hull] and you could say ‘ohmigod,’ it’s going to be hard to build anything that big.

“But there is no one way to build the industry and so much of the industry are in things that support the big stuff, parts, vessels, cables, cranes. I’m confident we can sew together the infrastructure for a supply chain out of a composite of sites.”

The industry is getting more lucrative by the day. At the moment, the United States has just the five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm spinning. But with Massachusetts mandating 1.6 GW of offshore wind by 2027 and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York calling for 2.4 GW of offshore wind by 2030, the regional market tantalizingly mirrors the 3.5 GW to 4 GW that Hull and the nearby city of Grimsby are in the process of installing. The Humber, as the region is called, will soon be the offshore hub of the UK, going from today’s 1,500 direct jobs to more than 6,000.

That possibility is enough for New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell to say, “I don’t think we’ll get all the manufacturing jobs. But if we’re strategic, we can get important levels of jobs.”

A top strategic aspect for Massachusetts is to figure out what parts of the industry can go where. Borkland said, “It will take a dance, like a giant ballet.” If Massachusetts plans right, the world’s top offshore wind players will want to be on the state’s dance card.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe contributing columnist