Offshore Wind Industry Wants To Shed Fossil Fueled Workboats

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The offshore wind industry is apparently not satisfied with producing carbon-free renewable energy. They are also cleaning up around the edges, too. One area of attention is the replacement of dirty petroleum fuels used by the working vessels that ferry crews and equipment to offshore construction sites. Electrification is on the menu as a long term solution, and in the meantime alternative fuels are getting attention.

Cleanup On Aisle Offshore Wind

Releasing the grip of fossil energy on maritime fuels has been a long, laborious process. Electrification is beginning to make some headway, such as the electric offsore SOV (service operation vessel) introduced by the shipbuilder Damen last fall. Wind-assisted technologies are also coming into play. Still, progress has been slow.

“More than 95 percent of ships today are powered by internal-combustion engines (ICEs) that run on various petroleum products, such as heavy fuel oil (HFO), marine gas oil (MGO), and marine diesel oil (MDO),” explains the organization Global Maritime Forum.

The global offshore wind firm Ørsted is among those talking up methanol from renewable resources as a here-and-now solution to at least reduce emissions, if not zero them out, while the electrification movement gathers momentum.

Back in 2022, Ørsted announced the deployment of a first-of-its-kind offshore service operations vessel powered by methanol, built by the the firm ESVAGT. Apparently they liked what they saw because ESVAGT is working on another one for Ørsted, which should be ready for deployment in 2026.

“The new SOV will be powered by dual fuel engines, capable of sailing on renewable e-methanol produced from renewable energy and biogenic carbon, which will lead to a yearly carbon emissions reduction of approx. 4,500 tonnes,” Ørsted explains.

More E-Methanol For The Ørsted Fleet

The combination of renewable energy and carbon derived from bio-based sources means green hydrogen is in play, which brings us to Ørsted’s latest methanol venture. The company has already laid out a plan to become its own green fuel supplier and the next step is a big one.

On March 25, Ørsted announced that it received the green light for up to $100 million in funding from the US Department of Energy towards the construction of its new Star e-Methanol facility. The new facility is described as a “Power-to-X” facility, which refers to the use of renewable energy to split hydrogen gas from water.

As described by Ørsted, Star e-Methanol fulfills the Energy Department stipulation that funding applicants must come up with projects that demonstrate “world-leading, first-or early-of-a-kind, full facility build resulting in significant emissions reductions up to net-zero operations.”

Ørsted anticipates that the facility will pump out up to 300,000 metric tons of e-methanol per year, and it already has the shipping giant Maersk lined up as a customer. Maritime fuel is just one use case. Ørsted also foresees that its e-methanol will be used to produce aviation fuel and various other chemicals that would otherwise require a fossil energy supply chain.

A Texas-Sized Plan For Cleaner Offshore Wind Vessels

The Star e-Methanol project will deploy electrolysis systems powered by wind and solar energy, for the green hydrogen end of things. The biogenic carbon involves capturing carbon from an industrial facility, such as a an ethanol production plant.

Biomass power plants, waste-to-energy operations, cement plants, biogas production, and paper manufacturing are other candidates for biogenic carbon capture.

Either way, the end result is the same. Ørsted calculates that its e-methanol will reduce carbon dioxide from vessels by more than 90%, compared to other marine fuels.

If you’re wondering where Ørsted is going to find wind power, solar power, water, and industrial facilities that produce biogenic carbon all in the same place, that’s a good question. The answer, of course, is Texas.

That may seem somewhat odd, considering that Texas officials have been trying to obstruct renewable energy investment. However, they are doing a very bad job of it, as illustrated by a burst of activity in the state’s emerging green hydrogen and e-fuels industries.

Star e-Methanol is just one example (here’s another one), and it is particularly interesting because Texas also happens to be an epicenter of the US ship building industry, which of course now includes building workboats for the offshore wind industry.

The US Department of the Interior is the federal agency that leases offshore wind areas for development, and just last week it drew attention to the Dominion Energy’s Charybdis offshore wind vessel, which is currently being built at the Seatrium AmFELS shipyard in Brownsville, Texas.

“The Charybdis is designed to be able to handle next generation wind energy turbine sizes of 14.7 megawatts and larger, with an anticipated construction completion by late 2024 or in 2025,” DOI reported. The first stop will be the East coast, where the Dominion is building the massive 176-turbine Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project.

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The Jones Act & Made-In-The-USA Offshore Wind Vessels

No word yet on whether or not the Charybdis is designed for e-methanol or any other alternative fuel, but DOI does emphasize that the ship “is slated to be the first U.S.-built and Jones Act-qualified offshore wind installation vessel,” so now would be a good time to talk about the Jones Act.

The Jones Act is part of the 1920 Merchant Marine Act, which was enacted in support of US national defense interests. The Merchant Marine has its own rigorous training academy in preparation to serve as a US Navy auxiliary service in wartime.

Under the Jones Act, the privilege of shipping goods between points within the US is denied to foreign-flagged ships. It is only allowed for ships built in the US, owned by US citizens (at least 75%), crewed by Americans (at least 75%), and sailing under the US flag. That includes shipping wind turbine components from a US seaport to an offshore wind farm in federal waters. Both are points within the US covered by the Jones Act.

The Jones Act is unabashedly protectionist, with the aim of securing the full cooperation of the nation’s civilian merchant fleet in wartime. “This encourages a strong U.S. Merchant Marine for both economic security and national defense by fostering a U.S.-flag fleet that can contribute to our financial wellbeing, and act as a sealift resource for the transportation of supplies in time of contingency,” explains the US Department of Transportation.

Due to Jones Act restrictions, the US ship building industry needs to get up to speed on building vessels for the offshore wind industry. That is beginning to happen, though slowly. These vessels are specially outfitted for offshore wind construction. More of them in US waters translates into more offshore wind, more quickly.

That explains why certain right-wing groups (you know who you are) have been promoting the idea of revoking the Jones Act in order to “save” the US offshore wind industry, when actually they just want to revoke the Jones Act.

Don’t fall for it. The wind workboat bottleneck is a global phenomenon, so revoking the Jone Act would not necessarily increase the number of vessels available for US wind farms in the near future.

Jones Act or not, political obstruction is the reason why the US has been slow to develop its offshore wind resources. Now that some of those obstacles have been removed, US shipyards will need time to get up to speed.

In the meantime, wind farms are being constructed in US waters and wind developers have been using various workarounds to avoid running afoul of the Jones Act, such as using US-built tugboats to ferry components out to sea by barge. Another stopgap measure is to transport wind farm components from ports in Canada or elsewhere.

The Congressional Research Service also notes that purpose-built wind installation vessels under foreign ownership are permitted in US wind farms, as long as they are put to use strictly for construction and not the transportation of components or crews.

President Joe Biden settled the matter back in 2022, when he declared that his administration “continues its unwavering support of the United States Merchant Marine, as well as the Jones Act, which protects the integrity of our domestic maritime industry, supports hundreds of thousands of jobs, and contributes over $150 billion in economic benefits.”

If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Photo: This service operations vessel for offshore wind farms runs on e-methanol produced from green hydrogen and captured biogenic carbon, with renewable energy (courtesy of ESVAGT).

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