Covering Climate

Gulf coast oil workers are building America’s offshore wind industry

The GE-Alstom Block Island Wind Farm, 3 miles off of Block Island, Rhode Island. Photo credit: Scott Eisen / Getty Images.

By Sara Sneath

More than a decade after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Gulf Coast oil workers are transitioning into offshore wind.

“The biggest misconception about transitioning from offshore drilling to offshore wind is the idea that oil platforms can be reused to hold wind turbines,” Louisiana state Representative Joseph Orgeron said in a recent phone interview. Offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico weren’t designed to handle that sort of load. The weight distribution of an offshore wind turbine is like trying to mount a “pumpkin on a pole,” Orgeron said. 

To function, the vertical base needs to be stout enough to handle the movement of the blades spinning and the face rotating directions with the wind. 

But while offshore drilling platforms don’t quite work as offshore wind platforms, what can be repurposed are the workers and building techniques that have supported offshore oil drilling. A single offshore wind farm could employ more than 4,000 people during construction and 150 people long-term, according to a 2020 analysis by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a national laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Rep. Orgeron didn’t start out considering the engineering difficulties of renewable energy. He grew up in the bayous of Louisiana, the homebase for his family’s business of offshore oilfield service vessels. When the oil work started to dry up, he realized that offshore wind could help his family’s company, Montco Offshore Inc, stay afloat. 

“I was fully enamored by offshore wind,” he said. “They’ll need offshore energy production expertise to do those buildouts. The people of South Louisiana would be prime to facilitate that.”

Montco was one of several Louisiana-based companies that helped build the first US offshore wind farm, off the coast of Rhode Island. But exporting Louisiana knowledge gleaned from offshore drilling was just the first step. Next, Orgeron wants to see wind farms built in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana’s governor supports the idea. Gov. John Bel Edwards asked the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to develop a plan for renewable energy production in the Gulf.

“This is not some ‘pie in the sky’ promise of economic opportunity,” Edwards said last November. “We already have an emerging offshore wind energy industry, and Louisiana’s offshore oil and gas industry has played a key role in the early development of U.S. offshore wind energy in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Rep. Orgeron said some of the existing offshore oil producers are interested in offshore wind. He plans to sponsor a bill during the upcoming legislative session that would incentivise offshore wind development with green energy tax credits. “I’m hoping to do what I can within state government to help spark the industry,” he said.

For nearly 40 years, Gulf Island Fabrications has been building the steel foundations for offshore drilling platforms in Houma, about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans. To build the bases for the wind farm in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Island worked with a New Orleans-based engineering firm to redesign the foundations to account for the added weight and movement of the wind turbines. 

The turbine foundations used the same kind of building materials and techniques as an offshore drilling foundation, called a jacket, according to Bill Blanchard, the Senior Vice President of Business Development for Gulf Island Fabrications. The company typically builds each offshore drilling foundation to meet the specific depth and location where the platform will be attached to the seafloor. But building the wind turbines meant constructing the same structures over and over again. 

Gulf Island’s fabrication yard wasn’t set up for that sort of serial production, Blanchard said. In order to build more wind turbine bases in the future, the company would need to revise its work flow and reconfigure its facilities. But the alternative is dire. Gulf Island has taken a hit from the drop in oil prices and slowdown of offshore drilling. “We’ve had a severe impact,” Blanchard said.

The company could have new opportunities in the form of offshore wind projects in the Gulf of Mexico. While 80% of turbines are attached to the seafloor with a vertical tubular structure, called a monopole, the jacket foundations like the ones built by Gulf Island are more ideal for wind development in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study. That’s because the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico is made up of softer soils.

But Gulf wind development could face a bigger obstacle: Hurricanes. Offshore wind developers will need to design turbines that can withstand the increased wave height and extreme winds from hurricanes. That’s a design issue that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory expects the offshore drilling industry can navigate in the next 10 years.

And while it’s a concern that wind turbines could be destroyed, it’s more concerning when offshore oil facilities are damaged by hurricanes, said Megan Milliken Biven, a public policy expert who worked for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for seven years. During her tenure at the agency, Milliken Biven helped analyze the feasibility of offshore wind in the Gulf. 

According to Biven, there’s often a misconception that the slower average annual wind speeds in the Gulf make it unfit for wind development. Yet, the next generation of wind turbines are taller, making them capable of catching faster winds.

In fact, Florida, Texas and Louisiana rank second, third and fourth, respectively in state by state offshore wind development potential, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The laboratory expects the development of wind farms in the Gulf to be economically feasible by 2030.

A Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spokeswoman confirmed that the agency will hold its first task force meeting to develop a plan for offshore wind in the Gulf in June. Milliken Biven said the agency should create some sort of bridge accreditation for offshore petrochemical workers to transition to offshore wind work. One of the most harrowing training exercises offshore workers go through is an underwater simulation of escaping a crashed helicopter, the vehicle used to transport workers onto platforms and back to land. 

The same training is likely necessary for offshore wind workers. “You still need people with iron stomachs going out there,”  Milliken Biven said. In many ways, transitioning to offshore wind is unlikely to be as disruptive as it’s been made out to be. But offshore wind also provides an opportunity to be disruptive in a positive way when it comes to the workforce.

The industry could provide an opportunity to weed out exploitative labor practices that have occurred within offshore drilling. Offshore oil service companies have been known to lure in migrant workers under the false promise of fair wages, for example, and to use low-paid prison labor. There’s nothing stopping offshore wind companies from using the same tactics, but the Gulf South for a Green New Deal policy platform calls for an end to unjust and unsafe labor practices. And Biven said that as government agencies amend regulations to adapt to offshore wind, they could and should create more worker safeguards, including more robust protections for whistleblowers.

“We must learn from the failures and oversights of the existing programs in a way that protects worker’s safety,” she wrote in a March memo to the Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM.

But mandating better working conditions will likely require public engagement in the development of offshore wind. BOEM will seek public involvement in the offshore wind development process after the area in the Gulf of Mexico viable for leasing is identified, which is expected to happen around November 2021.

This article originally appeared in Drilled News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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