Posted on July 20, 2022
Last month some 50 south Louisianans gathered in this small, New England port town, preparing for a breezy day trip through the Atlantic waters. The mood was light and there was an air of excitement — with some jokes about the “chilly” 70-degree weather compared to the triple digits back home as they ferried toward the Block Island Wind Farm.
This wasn’t just a joyride, however. It was a chance to show off America’s first commercial offshore wind farm, largely built and assembled by several Louisiana companies.
“We wanted to go to Rhode Island to allow people to see, touch and feel how Louisiana could create jobs building wind farms for the nation,” says Michael Hecht, president and CEO of the New Orleans economic development agency GNO, Inc.
“When we were informed that the wind farm in Block Island was largely engineered, assembled, constructed and serviced by Louisiana companies, it was an aha moment.”
Hecht also organized the trip to build enthusiasm and connect more industry leaders working toward getting offshore wind farms into the Gulf of Mexico.
As a growing number of academics, industry leaders and policymakers have been pushing to get these underway, Hecht views it as a brilliant opportunity. It’s a natural fit for Louisiana’s workforce, which is already primed for offshore activity.
“There is economic opportunity for Louisiana to become the supply chain for offshore wind in the entire nation,” Hecht says. “What’s exciting about that is that instead of looking for gold, we’re selling the shovels to the gold miners.”
He and other local experts are particularly enthused about the process, because it’s a way to mitigate climate change while improving the state’s economy.
“When we see an opportunity where industry, government and environmental organizations all agree on an opportunity, that’s something we should pursue,” Hecht says.
Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, says she also is pleased with the widespread support the notion of offshore wind is receiving locally.
“This is one of the first times I’ve seen leaders on either side of the aisle leaning into real solutions, so that’s particularly exciting to see,” she says.
HARNESSING WIND POWER
Louisiana and Rhode Island aren’t often compared to one another, aside from perhaps an affinity for seafood and their respective jazz festivals.
But both coastal states — along with the rest of the country — are dealing with accelerating climate change and the need to diversify power grids to accommodate renewable energy mandates and guidelines.
For some Louisiana workers, the Block Island wind farm was a practice run for what’s to come.
The five-turbine wind farm began fully operating in 2021 and supplies renewable energy to the 17-mile Block Island and other parts of Rhode Island. Its success has also paved the way for similar projects currently in development along the East Coast and in Louisiana in the coming years — and on a much larger scale.
It wasn’t an easy process to get the New England pilot project underway. But it eventually solved an annoying problem for residents of the island, in addition to creating more than 300 jobs, says Stacy Tingley, deputy head of market affairs at Orsted, the Danish company that owns the wind farm.
Block Island, which she fondly calls “the jewel of New England,” has about 2,000 full-time residents, but the population can swell up to 18,000 from summertime tourism. The surging demand for electricity had caused rolling blackouts, and residents were fed up with their unreliable power grid.
On top of that, their power was supplied the dirty way, says Tinsley: by burning millions of gallons of diesel annually and churning out carbon emissions.
In the face of climate change worsening, she says, “People were like, we have to do something.”
In 2006, Rhode Island’s then-Gov. Donald Carcieri first introduced the concept of harnessing the state’s coastal winds to generate clean, renewable energy.
He established the RIWINDS program and announced a goal to get the state to generate 15% of its electrical supply from wind power.
“[Carcieri] was like, ‘I want offshore wind energy for Rhode Island. I want it for climate change, but I also want it for economic development,” says Jennifer McCann, director of the U.S. Coastal Programs at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus in Narragansett.
Carcieri had the university conduct a multi-year, comprehensive study on the best practices and ways to get offshore wind farms developed.
This involved years of outreach, research and constantly surveying Rhode Island residents about their attitudes surrounding the project. While residents were largely supportive of it, they did have concerns.
For one, the waters are a popular spot for sailing and fishing, so it was necessary to get feedback on setting up the rigs in areas that that would minimally impede on this.
“This area (of water) is really crowded,” McCann says. “This is the fishing industry. There are navigational channels, ordinances, transportation — all sorts of things … People were concerned about how this is going to affect their environment? Will there be collisions with our commercial and recreational fishing?”
It also required studying everything from underwater geological structures to the ecosystem of the waters to current wind blade technologies. “Believe it or not,” she jokes, “We made scientists talk to stakeholders.”
Tracey Dalton, director of the Rhode Island Sea Grant and a professor of marine affairs at URI, says there were technical challenges but also human ones.
“When you have a 600-foot structure, putting it in the middle of this busy ocean, you’ve got fishing, marine mammals, endangered species seeding and spawning. And you have to think about people and how they are going to relate to it,” Dalton says.
One study she conducted showed recreational fisherman reacted more positively to the wind farm’s development because the underwater structure. “They said there were increases in fish abundance and they were seeing different types of species at the site. On the other hand, the commercial fisherman were concerned that it was increasing recreational activity at the site.”
Louisiana will have to face similar issues and conversations, though industry leaders are confident that support for it, like in Rhode Island, will be abundant. That there is already infrastructure in the Gulf waters doesn’t hurt — people are already accustomed to offshore activity.
And many of the potential wind farms could be several miles offshore, where there is not as much recreational boat traffic to worry about.
That’s when Louisiana companies, like Keystone Engineering, Edison Chouest and others brought their “Cajun ingenuity” up north, Hecht says.
Where Rhode Island had the academic and economic support, what they lacked was a significant workforce to actually fabricate the parts and coordinate logistics of building the rigs.
Hecht compares some of the innovations made by south Louisianans to the Higgins boat, the amphibious vessel used in World War II that was famously developed by New Orleanian Andrew Higgins. “The boat saved the free world,” Hecht says. “We will no doubt see that happen in offshore wind.”
DIFFERENT ISSUES FOR LOUISIANA
Although Louisiana has not traditionally been known for leading the way in solutions to climate change, Gov. John Bel Edwards, in line with the Biden administration, released a state climate plan earlier this year with help from a bipartisan task force.
The plan sets a goal of generating 5 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2035, with the potential to supply millions of homes with clean wind energy.
The goal is also part of a larger recommendation to reduce greenhouse gases and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Greenhouse gas reduction is one reason (to implement offshore wind),” says Don Pierson, secretary of Louisiana Economic Development. “But as we proceed, potential corporations that will want to grow or relocate to our state will ask us, what is your blend of power vs. fossil fuels? We don’t want to say we’re 100% fossil fuels. We need to move as the world is moving.”
The guidelines, as well as other state legislation that allows for offshore development, solidify the Gulf region as a hospitable place to do business in the renewable energy sector. But the state will certainly have some different issues than the ones faced by Rhode Island.
Rhode Island’s farm, for example, is in shallower state waters, so dealing with the federal regulations wasn’t necessary. At least some of Louisiana’s windmills, which will be far larger than the ones powering Block Island, will need to be in federal waters.
Louisiana is working with the federal government to figure out which areas in the Gulf could be developed for offshore wind. And that’s likely to be a lengthy permitting process because it would be the first projects in the country of that size and scope. Plus, the rigs will be much bigger to accommodate hurricane-force winds.
Leaders are hoping to make Louisiana a national hub — not just capable of powering a small vacation spot like Block Island, but for millions of homes across the state and country.
And Hecht also points out that the state will be additionally able to sell green hydrogen generated from wind power, which could curb carbon emissions while still feeding the industrial corridor.
“They’re very new to permitting wind farms and wind activities, so there’s no established rules, regulations and guidelines to follow, per se,” Pierson says. “They’re now being developed. It’s a slower process and that’s one of the challenges we might face beyond three miles out (in federal waters).”
However, Hecht of GNO Inc. doesn’t necessarily think offshore wind farms will take as long as Rhode Island’s project, in part because the workforce is already here, the support is already widespread and technology has significantly improved over the last decade, which could help make the process more efficient. “(Offshore wind) is an evolution, not a revolution,” Hecht says.
Neither does James Martin, CEO of Gulf Wind Technologies, think the process needs to be dragged out too long. His company is in the planning stages of developing massive blades that dwarf the ones in Rhode Island, to accommodate hurricane-force winds.
“In [Rhode Island] they said their process took a long time,” he says. “Louisiana can say, ‘OK we haven’t done wind before, but we have done thousands of drilling assets.’ There’s no reason why Louisiana can’t leverage its experience in oil and gas.”
And companies like his — which is preparing to manufacture blades for the Gulf offshore wind farms — are already planning and developing new technology to fabricate supplies.
When the permitting goes through, Martin says they will be ready to take nearly immediate action, though one lesson learned from Rhode Island was to install the turbines when there’s no wind. “So what we need to do in the Gulf is choose the right time of year — not during hurricane season,” says Martin.
“We’ve got a little lead time to get everything ready,” he adds. “It’s almost like building a house —if you think about a developer, you have to secure the land, you have to do the surveys, (identify) the shrimping areas, the fishing areas. Then you plan the house, so to speak, buy the pieces and then you install it.”
BRINGING IT HOME
A new law in New Orleans also sets a clear and strict path forward for the region’s transition into renewables.
A City Council ordinance last year, authored by Council President and Climate Chair Helena Moreno, forces Entergy New Orleans to shift away from its heavy reliance on oil and gas and use renewable and clean energy instead over the next several years. The policy requires 100% net zero carbon emissions by 2040.
While the state’s climate plan is more of a set of recommendations that has not been enacted into law, the city’s legislation entices growth in the wind sector.
And the council has been working closely with business leaders like Hecht to help solidify the city as a hospitable place for offshore wind businesses.
Additionally, the American Clean Power Association released a study earlier this year that said as many as 17,500 new jobs could be created if two proposed wind farms take shape in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas and Louisiana. According to the Times-Picayune, the industry group estimated that it could create more up to 14,700 construction jobs and about 2,800 permanent positions for wind farm operations and maintenance.
Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff for Moreno, says the council will continue incentivizing businesses to set up shop here.
“We will need hundreds of megawatts of new renewables over the next decade, and wind will play an important role here,” Tuozzolo says. “This (legislation) is the true catalyst.”
Reflecting on the boat ride to Block Island, Hecht says the diversity of those aboard the ferry to the wind farm was an especially good sign for the state’s future as a wind hub.
“We had the bayou regions, Lafayette, New Orleans, Baton Rouge — a large part of south Louisiana,” he says. “All who understand they can be a part of it … The two points were to inform and to inspire. Without question, both those goals were met.”
Tuozzolo also felt that the trip hammered in how capable and well-positioned the state is to bring these projects to the Gulf.
“South Louisiana already does the work,” he says. “Now let’s bring it home in a big way.”