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New kid on the Block

Ship & Boat International: September/October 2015

With North America’s first offshore wind park about to enter service, work has commenced on the construction of the first all-American-built and US-flagged turbine support vessel.

The Block Island array, which is situated off the coast of Rhode Island on the Eastern Seaboard, overseen by offshore renewable energy developer Deepwater Wind, will feature five wind turbines, generating a combined 30MW of power for the inhabitants of Block Island, located some 4.8km away. The first two jacket foundations for the Block Island project have already been placed on site, and the wind farm is expected to be up and running in Q4 2016.

Although a relatively small site ­ at least in comparison to some of the European Round 2 and 3 offshore wind farms ­ the Block Island project nonetheless represents a major development for the US energy market and domestic shipyards alike. Deepwater Wind has awarded a 20-year maintenance and service contract to Atlantic Wind Transfers, a commercial subsidiary of operator Rhode Island Fast Ferry, which has subsequently ordered its first ever  (not to mention the US’ first ever) offshore wind farm support craft from Rhode Island-based builder Blount Boats.

“It’s like somebody’s dropped an island in my back yard,” Charles A. Donadio Jr, president and owner of Atlantic Wind Transfers, tells Ship & Boat International. With a background of 20 years in boatbuilding and vessel operations, including  15 years of experience in running fast ferry services, Donadio was not slow in spotting the commercial gift horse presented by the Block Island development, a mere 50-minute boat trip away from his operational base.

Rhode Island Fast Ferry specialises in operating high-speed aluminium passenger vessels, ranging from ferries operating between Rhode Island and Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island, conducting sightseeing tours on Narragansett Bay, to a 400-pax fast ferry operating in Bermuda. “We currently have 600 linear ft [183m] of docking space and 24,300m² of dockside property, and are surrounded by deep water, so we’re in the best location to provide support to all these Northeast US wind farms,” Donadio adds.

In addition to the Block Island project, there are three proposed wind farm sites within the vicinity of Donadio’s docks off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and, according to the US Department of Energy (DoE), at least 4GW of potential offshore wind power is waiting to be tapped from areas located within 80km of US coasts. The DoE is not just passively monitoring the situation, but has pumped more than US$300 million into R&D and demonstration projects, to assist in creating a viable infrastructure across the country.

The shift to wind power
This is all a far cry from 2010, when, as offshore conference delegates were constantly reminded, hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, was widely viewed as being the US’ best means of overcoming its reliance on fossil fuels.

Donadio explains: “The fracking market will probably continue to shrink until oil prices get higher. Once the price of oil dips below the US$60 mark, it can be hard to justify continuing to invest in fracking. Also, there has been an increase in people pointing out the negative side effects of this practice, such as pollution of local water wells and excessive noise.” Such detrimental connotations have only added to the popular appeal of offshore wind technology.

Similarly, it could be argued that, despite Shell’s gung-ho pronouncements two to three years ago, proponents of liquefied natural gas (LNG) have failed to realise the creation of a functional and viable LNG bunkering infrastructure in the US, with the majority of ports still lacking access to this environmentally clean fuel type.

Enthused by the governmental go-ahead on the Block Island project, Donadio travelled to the UK last year, accompanied by representatives from Blount Boats, where they visited the South Boats Isle of Wight (IOW) facility, Alicat’s Great Yarmouth boatyard and operator Seacat Services on a fact-finding mission. “We have the advantage of learning from the experience and expertise of the UK and European innovators,” says Donadio. The US marine sector, of course, is subject to the terms of the protectionist Jones Act, meaning that any vessel operating in North American waters must have been constructed in the US. Naturally, this is great news for domestic yards ­ Blount Boats in particular estimates that this contract alone will create 70 roles at its facility ­ though it has presented a challenge to would-be US offshore wind farm service operators who are unable to simply import high-end European models and put them to work.

As well as inspiring vessel design and features, such research can also help US-based yards and operators to avoid some of the mistakes or outmoded practices of the past ­ the use of repurposed fishing vessels as crew transfer vessels, once common in the UK, being one example. Subsequently, Donadio reveals, the forthcoming Atlantic Wind Transfers vessel has been based on South Boat IOW’s proven and DNV GL-certified 21m design. 

Learning curve
However, the construction of the boat will still necessitate a steep learning curve. As Donadio points out: “This is not just the first US-built offshore wind farm support vessel, but also the first US Coast Guard [USCG] Subchapter L  boat [the category for offshore supply vessels] to feature a catamaran hull form and to be built in aluminium. There is a lot of certification to wade through ­ for instance, some of the DNV GL requirements are way over the top for the USCG admin, so we’re constantly communicating with Washington DC ­ it’s a totally new process for both ourselves and the USCG.” At this stage of the certification programme, the transfer vessel’s passenger / turbine technician capacity has not been finalised, although Donadio reveals that there may be an option to accommodate up to 16 passengers.

Atlantic Wind Transfers has opted for dual vessel certification, meaning that the forthcoming craft will also meet the USCG’s Subchapter T requirements, which covers small passenger vessels of under 30.5m in length. As a result, the operator will be able to charter out the vessel during those periods in which she is not required to undertake support work at Block Island, thus widening her operational window. “With just five turbines to be maintained, the Block Island project won’t require a huge volume of technician traffic,” Donadio says. “By securing T-boat certification, we could potentially use the vessel to take up to 49 passengers on cruises and sightseeing tours during periods of wind farm downtime.”

The certification process of any vessel has the potential to bring on grinding migraines, but Donadio has remained enthusiastic throughout. The excitement of being a pioneer in this field ­ and, subsequently, leaving one’s stamp on marine history ­ is evident in his tone. “Getting to grips with this learning curve and leading the way in US offshore wind farm support services will also offer us a huge advantage over our competitors,” he says. As reported in Ship & Boat International January/February 2015 (page 5), US shipyards and service operators are becoming increasingly interested in the offshore wind farm sector, with the subject dominating much of the discussions at last year’s Workboat exhibition, hosted in New Orleans in December 2014. By getting their feet in the door at this early stage, Atlantic Wind Transfers and Blount Boats could very well bolster their credentials when it comes to securing further offshore wind farm contracts. One imagines that the subject will crop up repeatedly at this year’s Workboat gathering.

Hopefully, the success of the Block Island project will trigger a new round of US wind farm site approvals and activity; as Donadio puts it: “Once the switch is flicked and the Block Island array goes online, people will realise that this technology works…we expect a lot of progress and planning over the next 15 to 20 years. Providing the US offshore wind industry is given the right support, we could be on the cusp of a significant domestic investment, manufacturing and employment success story.” The vessel is scheduled to leave the blocks and undergo sea trials in April 2016, before commencing work on the Block Island project in proper in May.

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