The US offshore wind industry is on the brink of a gold rush. The technical resource potential of this largely unmined market soars over 2,000 gigawatts. That’s more than twice the energy currently being produced by all nationwide electric power plants combined. The current US wind industry is located almost 100% onshore but developers are now overcoming political and environmental hurdles to claim their stakes on the nautical charts of the eastern US.

Construction and maintenance of an offshore wind farm is rarely easy and never cheap. With so many limiting factors to keep an eye on, the three-decades-old European market relies on strategic control hubs called marine coordination centers to ensure safety, security and thus efficiency. These centers are an integral piece of the complex offshore wind industry, but they don’t exist in the US yet. Without marine coordination centers established in the US, a service gap may begin to emerge, leaving the door open to safety and efficiency concerns.

Waiting on Weather

The factor that boosts offshore wind farms’ generative energy potential also complicates construction and maintenance campaigns: stronger weather. Seabed preparation, foundation and cable installation, turbine installation, and maintenance are planned according to average conditions in the wind energy area (WEA). But these average estimates don’t guarantee safe day-to-day conditions.

Offshore construction is highly sensitive to weather influences. Turbine construction can require an average significant wave height as low as 1 meter. Even during seasonable conditions, turbine construction is stalled by “waiting on weather” about 15% of the time. If operations have been planned for a particular season, delays could result in work not beginning until the following year.

Complications and safety concerns multiply with each construction phase. Only specialized equipment – jack-up barges, wind turbine installation vessels, cable-lay vessels, crew transfer vessels – will get the job done, and these vessels must not be engaged above operational limits.

Installation contractors rely on a Marine Coordination Center to ensure operational limits are not exceeded. The MCC monitors weather and sends worksite-specific forecasts at regular intervals and on demand. In unsafe conditions, the MCC has overriding authority to pause operations. As a weather data center, it maximizes efficiency and keeps personnel safe.

Navigation and Security in High-Traffic Waters

Development of US offshore wind farms poses challenges for safe navigation. It makes sense to construct farms near mainland access points, but this often places them in the neighborhood of heavy sea traffic and fishing grounds.

Crowded waters create security issues, as no unallowed traffic should approach within 500 meters of turbines (the same safety zone given to US offshore oil and gas operations). Since fishing vessels and pleasure crafts are not always equipped with automatic identification systems (AIS), navigational conflicts can be difficult to avoid. Curiosity may lead unauthorized vessels to approach wind turbines, exposing themselves to risk. Unauthorized crafts can cause severe interference, resulting in vessel collision, damage to equipment or infrastructure, or release of hazardous materials into the environment.

Using shore-based stations and site response vessels, an MCC provides navigational support to vessels and monitors security access requirements. The MCC also has authority over operations at heavy-traffic port areas. This minimizes access conflicts and traffic hazards, safeguarding engaged personnel and outside traffic.

Hazard and Emergency Training  

Even during fair weather, an offshore wind farm is a harsh environment, with simultaneous operations taking place on vessels, structures and subsea. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), offshore conditions heighten many risks of onshore wind farms. Personnel transfer, emergency evacuations, weather exposure, structural environment, and crane lifts pose a higher risk offshore than they do onshore.

In this environment, trial-and-error experimentation isn’t an option. Personnel need specialized training to handle heavy components, climb towering turbines, and perform diving operations. Personnel need HUET/BOSIET training to enter the wind energy area in a helicopter or transfer vessel. The MCC maintains a high safety standard by conducting trainings and site inductions, as well as keeping records of safety trainings. The MCC ensures that all involved vessels are certified and regularly inspected.

Every person working in the wind energy area must wear a life vest. If vests are equipped with AIS or WiFi beacons, and if transponders are installed on ships and turbines, the MCC can provide real-time location service of all personnel. This equips the MCC to act as first contact in an emergency situation, accounting for personnel and directing emergency responders efficiently.

Shore-Based, Streamlined Safety

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has developed regulatory standards for US offshore wind farms, including measurements of turbine and foundation integrity. In order to meet these standards, a marine coordination center should be established in the early phases of project development, and involved in the approval of contractors and vessels. With MCCs helping to meet BOEM regulatory requirements for installation and structural health monitoring, developers can set a high standard for safety and security.

Offshore wind construction and operation demand constant weather monitoring, traffic control, rigorous safety training, and coordination of emergency responses. This requires sophisticated technology and qualified personnel. The primary advantage of a marine coordination center is centralization of information and expert personnel at a shore-based strategic hub. Developers and operators can rely on these centers to maintain safety, security and efficiency. From construction to daily operation, marine coordination centers may soon play a continuous role in the success of offshore wind in the US