Posted on November 29, 2023
The pier on the Connecticut coast is filled with so many massive oddities that it could be mistaken for the set of a sci-fi movie. Sword-shaped blades as long as a football field lie stacked along one edge, while towering yellow and green cranes hoist giant steel cylinders to stand like rockets on a launchpad.
It is a launching point, not for spacecraft, but for the first wind turbines being built to turn ocean wind into electricity for New Yorkers. Crews of union workers in New London, Conn., are preparing parts of 12 of the gargantuan fans before shipping them out for final assembly 15 miles offshore.
“They’re sort of space-stationesque,” said Christine Cohen, a Democratic state senator who toured the assembly site last week. “Seeing the components up close, it’s just breathtaking how immense they are.”
The turbines will make up South Fork Wind, a wind farm in the Atlantic Ocean whose completion is pivotal to Northeastern states’ hopes of switching to renewable sources of energy. Recent setbacks to several other offshore projects in the region have raised concerns about whether and when they all will be built.
One of South Fork’s developers, Denmark-based Orsted, recently canceled plans for two much larger wind farms off the coast of New Jersey, saying they were no longer feasible.
The company had also planned to build Sunrise Wind, another wind farm in the Atlantic that would supply electricity to New York. But after state regulators refused to increase the subsidies for that project and three others, Orsted said it was unsure whether it would bid again for that contract. New York officials said they would seek new bids starting Nov. 30.
In the meantime, New York’s best bet for entering the era of offshore wind power is stacked up at the water’s edge in New London.
The pieces are so big that it has taken a cargo ship three voyages to transport them from Germany and Denmark, where they were made by Siemens Gamesa, a leading manufacturer of turbines. The ship is due back soon with the last load.
Orsted and its partner, Eversource, expect the electricity to start flowing from the first South Fork turbines before the end of the year. But the weather offshore — sometimes, it can be too windy to build a wind farm — as well as all sorts of mechanical matters and a simmering labor dispute at the pier could delay the flow of power from the ocean to Long Island.
Parts of what will eventually be the towers of wind turbines out in the ocean.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
In early November, the first barge to leave New London loaded with turbine parts had to return still carrying three blades because of a mechanical problem transferring them to a ship. It was not until two weeks later that the barge was able to make another eight-hour round trip and a successful transfer.
The task is immense in every dimension, including distance, time and cost. Out in the ocean, more than 30 miles east of Montauk Point, the mission is to erect a dozen towers and attach 318-foot-long fiberglass blades to each of them. Imagine the 50-story General Motors Building with three Statues of Liberty rotating around the top, attached by the tips of their torches.
The central role at South Fork is played by the Aeolus, a jack-up ship. The Aeolus uses its crane to lift the turbine pieces off an arriving barge and then transforms itself into a platform by plunging its four legs to the ocean floor and rising out of the water.
Once one of the structures is intact, crew members from a supply ship will enter the tower and, ascending on a three-passenger elevator tucked inside, tighten bolts and connect cables to prepare the turbine to generate power.
Paul Murphy, an Orsted executive overseeing the project, said he expected South Fork to get past its remaining hurdles, including the sparring between powerful unions at the pier.
In September and October, busloads of longshoremen set up picket lines outside the pier’s gates, objecting to the operation of cranes there by members of the International Union of Operating Engineers. Their union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, has stopped trying to block work at the pier for now, but a union official said the matter was not resolved.
“We changed our method of protest temporarily,” said James H. Paylor, the union’s assistant general organizer. He said the union had been handing out fliers outside Orsted’s offices in New York, Boston and other cities.
Mr. Murphy said that after “some teething-type issues,” South Fork was “in the last stages.” When the wind is not blowing too hard, the workers out at sea can assemble a turbine in less than three days.
“The first time you do each activity, you want to make sure you do everything nice and slow” to ensure that it is done right and novice installers learn the steps, Mr. Murphy said.
The installation, which will continue for several weeks, involves more than 200 workers, on land and aboard several vessels. Last Monday, New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, announced that the installation of the first South Fork turbine marked “a momentous step” toward the state’s goal of getting 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
The pace of work could be faster if not for a century-old law known as the Jones Act, which prevents the Dutch-flagged Aeolus from picking up parts from the pier itself and ferrying them to the site. The Jones Act requires the involvement of American-made barges.
But the barges will not be needed once there is an American ship capable of installing turbines in the ocean. The first one, the Charybdis, is under construction in Texas, with a price tag of $625 million and completion expected by early 2025.
The Charybdis should be able to operate at least twice as fast because it will be able to carry up to four turbine towers at a time, said Ulysses B. Hammond, interim executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority.
“It’s huge,” Mr. Hammond said of the ship. “I mean huuuuge.”
Gesturing toward the nearby section of Interstate 95 crossing the Thames River, he added, “It’s going to stop the traffic on the Gold Star Bridge.”
The port in New London, Conn., is able to offer access to seagoing vessels without any practical limitations on height or width. Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times
Mr. Hammond has overseen the remaking of the state-owned pier, which sits at the mouth of the Thames River across from General Dynamics’ Electric Boat submarine shipyard, into a hub for the assembly of offshore wind turbines. With no bridges between it and the ocean, the pier has the rare advantage along the Northeast coast of offering access to seagoing vessels without any practical limitations on height or width.
The project is now estimated to cost about $300 million, more than triple the port authority’s original estimate. The developers of South Fork, Orsted and Eversource, are contributing about $100 million and the state is putting up the rest.
Connecticut’s governor, Ned Lamont, has called the spending an investment in capturing an outsize role in a budding regional industry.
“Connecticut’s deepwater ports, direct water access and long history of advanced manufacturing make our state a natural home for offshore wind projects serving all of New York and New England,” Mr. Lamont said in October.
Both the state and the developers are counting on the pier as the assembly point for more wind farms. Orsted and Eversource have formed joint ventures for two more offshore projects — Revolution Wind and Sunrise Wind — that they plan to build after completing South Fork.
Revolution Wind, more than five times the size of South Fork, would provide Connecticut and Rhode Island with enough power for about 350,000 homes, Orsted says. Sunrise Wind would supply New York with enough power for nearly 600,000 homes, it says.
But at the moment, South Fork is the one to watch as the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about offshore wind power,” Mr. Murphy said. “In the next couple of months, we’ll be using it.”