Federal OK clears way for construction of first U.S. offshore wind farm

In a decision expected to generate job opportunities for U.S. professional mariners, federal officials have approved the nation’s first offshore wind energy facility.

Cape Wind Associates LLC received permission from the Department of the Interior on April 28 to operate its proposed windmill farm off Massachusetts. The company plans to install 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound within a zone of four to 11 miles from shore.

The government’s decision “launches the American offshore wind industry,†Cape Wind President Jim Gordon proclaimed at a Boston news conference on the day of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s announcement.

The offshore wind proposal was backed by a labor organization representing the region’s mariners and shipyard employees.

“Skilled maritime workers are ready to get to work to help install these wind turbines offshore Massachusetts and to build America’s first offshore wind farm,†said Gerard Dhooge, president of the Maritime Trades Council of Greater Boston and New England. The council includes Seafarers International Union, Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots.

“Thirty to 50 percent of the members of the Maritime Trades Council are currently out of work, so we need these jobs now more than ever,†Dhooge said.

The wind farm would comprise 130 turbines within a zone four to 11 miles from shore in a part of Nantucket Sound known as Horseshoe Shoal, where the waters are 12 to 45 feet deep. When running at full capacity, the turbines would produce 454 MW, enough to power 420,000 homes. (Ginny Howe Illustration)

Cape Wind is already calling for bids on the initial build-out, including installation of the windmills’ seabed foundations, transition pieces, 440-foot-high turbines and undersea cables that will transmit the electricity to the mainland.

At peak generation, the $1 billion-plus farm may produce as much as 454 MW, enough to power 420,000 homes. National Grid has agreed to purchase electricity from Cape Wind.

The site is the sound’s Horseshoe Shoal, where the waters are 12 feet to 45 feet deep. The construction may begin in early 2011, Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said.

“We’re accepting bids from contractors on the ocean construction aspect of the project, which includes the vessels,†Rodgers told Professional Mariner in May. “We’re interested in bids that can do it all, turnkey. We understand that contractors are working together to put in unified bids.â€

Rodgers said the project certainly will require tugboats, barges and jack-up lift boats, among other commercial vessels. He didn’t know if bulk carriers would be used.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have called for the United States to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. Offshore wind projects have been proposed in at least nine states.

Wind-power advocates have said that, if current growth projections are attained, the offshore wind industry would need purpose-built vessels to become more efficient in the installation and servicing of the turbines. The project’s vessels will be U.S.-built and crewed, the company promised.

“Our expectation on this project — and we made it clear to the potential contractors — is we’re going to have to be Jones Act-compliant,†Rodgers said.

The Interior Department’s milestone decision followed approvals by several other federal, state and local agencies. In May, the Federal Aviation Administration gave its OK after Cape Wind agreed to ensure that the windmills would not interfere with nearby aviation radar. Lawsuits filed by Cape Cod and Nantucket Island residents and by a native tribe are pending.

By Professional Mariner Staff