Surge in offshore wind proposals prompts call from industry for navigation fairways

A boom in offshore wind energy proposals along the Eastern Seaboard has mariners concerned that wind farms will interfere with shipping routes.

Although mariners up and down the Atlantic coast have been raising concerns about specific projects, some feel a more comprehensive approach is needed.

“There has got to be something done soon. Otherwise we will be zigging and zagging up and down the East Coast,” said Capt. Eric Johansson, of SUNY Maritime College’s Professional Education and Training Department. This issue was one of the topics at the 11th Annual Towing Forum held in October 2010 at the college and organized by Johansson. “The only way you can deal with this is safety fairways,” he said.

One industry group, the American Waterways Operators (AWO), has been working for about 18 months on this issue. The AWO supports alternative energy and sees opportunities for the maritime industry in the building and servicing of these wind power projects, “but we want to make sure our core function of moving commerce from point A to point B is protected,” said Nicole deSibour, the AWO’s Atlantic region vice president.

The AWO formed the Atlantic Fairways Working Group after Fishermen’s Energy of Cape May, N.J., asked for leases to build towers to collect wind data for a proposed 330-MW, 66-turbine project seven miles off the coast of New Jersey.

“The proposed lease block happened to overlay our direct route up and own the coast of New Jersey,” said deSibour. “It was not an ideal spot.”

A compromise was worked out, and the proposed data towers were moved out of shipping routes.

Since then, there have been several East Coast projects proposed that would interfere with shipping lanes. For example, NRG Bluewater Wind has proposed a 450-MW wind power project 13 miles off the Delaware coast just south of Cape Henlopen. The project would directly impact the Five Fathom Bank-Cape Henlopen and Cape Henlopen-Delaware traffic lanes, according to a June 25 letter deSibour submitted as part of the federal rulemaking process on this project.

Shipping traffic would have to go east or west of the proposed wind project, increasing voyage time by one to four hours, depending on weather conditions, according to Christian LaPense, compliance director of Dann Marine Towing of Chesapeake City, Md.

“The sheer size, scope and magnitude of this project is enormous and centered on one of the busiest shipping channels of the United States,” LaPense wrote in a June 23 letter commenting on the project.

The AWO working group is asking members to chart their traditional shipping routes, from which they will create an overlay map for the entire Atlantic Coast. Informal discussions have also been held with U.S. Coast Guard officials.

In order to establish fairways, a Coast Guard port access study would have to be conducted, according to George Detweiler, a marine transportation specialist at the Office of Navigation Systems at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. The Coast Guard would set the boundaries for a port study.

“We could say, hypothetically, we would look at the area off each state, or take it in bigger chunks, or say let’s look at the whole Eastern Seaboard,” Detweiler said. “Of course, the larger you get, it is a bigger project.”

The study has to be presented in the Federal Register, and is a lengthy process. Other routing measures could be proposed that are not in federal regulations, he said.

Right now internal discussions are being held to determine whether the Coast Guard will do a port access study in connection with routing measures for potential offshore renewable energy installations, Detweiler said.

AWO’s deSibour said that if the Coast Guard does decide to move forward with a study of safety fairways, the AWO hopes it will take the holistic approach of doing the entire Atlantic Coast.

The issue poses a difficult challenge for the industry, she said, “because we’re in new, uncharted territory.”

David A. Tyler

By Professional Mariner Staff