by Christopher Abel
The recent announcement that Poseidon Atlantic is building an offshore wind power testing facility on the Eastern Shore bodes well for Virginia’s maritime industry generally and for the Port of Hampton Roads in particular. Not only does this latest development demonstrate Virginia’s significant and growing commitment to this country’s nascent offshore wind power industry, but it is also a major step forward in establishing Hampton Roads as the epicenter of future East Coast offshore wind power assembly, installation, maintenance and support operations. Indeed, this latest project offers Virginia’s port and shipping interests a valuable “dress rehearsal” for more even ambitious offshore wind power work to come, while at the same time highlighting the critical role Virginia’s shipbuilding and ship repair industries are destined to play as offshore wind generation becomes a reality in our region.
The new venture, the first of its kind in the U.S., envisions offering up to 10 test pads where developers of offshore wind power systems can erect full-scale models of their towers and turbines, fully permitted and connected to the power grid, for testing, evaluation and certification. While other U.S. facilities have the capability to test individual system components, this would be the first site in North America where entire offshore wind generating systems could be set up and evaluated — a critical milestone on the path to wind farms being established off the U.S. East Coast. The project, spearheaded by Real NewEnergy, Ecofys and the Norfolk office of the Dutch engineering company, Fugro, comes on the heels of establishment of an Offshore Wind Technology Center in Chesapeake by Newport News-based Huntingon Ingalls Industries and Spain’s Gamesa, and the announcement of Norfolk-based Maersk Lines Limited’s offshore wind power partnership with Charlottesville’s Apex Offshore Wind. All of these companies are focused on generating electricity from wind farms located offshore in the mid-Atlantic region.
Given the significant infrastructure, supply chain and logistics demands associated with supporting the construction, operation and maintenance of offshore wind generating facilities, it generally has been recognized that a single port is likely to emerge as the East Coast support hub for this new industry. Currently, the ports of Baltimore, Hampton Roads, Morehead City, Charleston and Savannah are jockeying for position to fill that role. The enormous size and weight of the turbines, blades and towers associated with commercial offshore wind projects means that the ideal port is one offering a combination of deep water, unrestricted air drafts, pier space for very large vessels, considerable open lay-down acreage, substantial heavy lift capability, ready rail access and close proximity to offshore wind farm sites. At present, only Hampton Roads appears to offer the full package of desirable characteristics — something it may be able to demonstrate relatively soon, thanks to Poseidon Atlantic’s new venture.
Because the new Eastern Shore facility contemplates full-scale testing, the same massive components that ultimately would be placed in wind farms offshore will need to be brought to its test pads in Northampton County. And as Paul Vosbeek, Poseidon Atlantic’s founding partner, confirms, those components are going to arrive by sea and be moved through Virginia’s port. Small wonder, then, that Jeff Keever, the Virginia Port Authority’s deputy executive director, sees the new venture as providing a “one of a kind opportunity for the port.” To be sure, handling huge blades, giant turbines, and towering mast components associated with this project will give the Port of Hampton Roads an early “practice run” at precisely the kind of specialized work it can expect to perform once offshore wind farms are constructed off the mid-Atlantic coast. And the very act of showing that it can do that work, efficiently and well, will go a long way toward ensuring that even more wind power system cargoes, logistics and support work will follow.
Because the systems to be tested at the Poseidon facility will be ashore, their installation will not require the kinds of specialized vessels needed to build, service, and maintain commercial-grade wind farms at sea. But the challenges associated with building and operating such towers on the Eastern Shore are sure to provide a pointed reminder that those vessels — which by law must be built and owned in the U.S — are going to be needed soon enough. Hampton Roads, with its robust shipbuilding and ship repair industry, once again is in just the right place with just the right tools to meet that important need too.
The future for supporting offshore wind power in Hampton Roads is bright, and the new Poseidon Atlantic project on Virginia’s Eastern Shore has the potential to bring that future a big step closer.
Christopher Abel is a partner in the Maritime Law & Government Contracts Practice Group of Troutman Sanders LLP in Norfolk.Tweet
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