"It’s a bit like a tinker-toy set," says Jeff Grybowski, with the nonchalance of a person who’s been working on a complicated problem for almost a decade. "Once you get it off-shore, you’re just sticking the pieces together and bolting it." Except in this case, the tinker toy pieces each weigh hundreds of tons. Some of them are bolted 200 feet into the sea floor. Others rise up 600 feet out of the water. And they're being assembled this summer in deep water by a "small armada" of ships off the coast of the Eastern Seaboard.
Grybowski is a lawyer and CEO of Deepwater Wind, the Rhode Island company that’s assembling the first offshore wind farm in the United States—a fleet of five 600-foot-tall wind turbines built by GE that will be used to power Block Island, the idyllic but relatively isolated island community that floats between Rhode Island and Long Island, when it’s completed at the end of the year.
Building A Skyscraper At Sea
Grybowski might seem like an odd person to lead a wind farm company—he's worked for white-shoe law firms like Sullivan & Cromwell—until you realize that until Deepwater Wind came along, virtually no framework existed to regulate such infrastructure. His company spent six years just getting approval, because no approval process existed. "We were the guinea pig for the regulatory process at the state and federal levels," Grybowski laughs. "At the end of the day, we received 26 approvals from different government agencies."
Last summer, the team at Deepwater Wind finally got to work. First, they drove a series of 200-foot-deep steel piles into the seabed off of Block Island, laying down the foundation for the turbines that will eventually power the 1,000-person community. These "jacket foundations" are the legs of the wind turbines themselves, which will be assembled on top this summer.
At 600 feet tall above the water alone, these steel turbines are testing the height limits of the whole industry—they're basically hugely fragile high-rise buildings bolted to the sea floor. But Grybowski says they're only going to get higher as the technology evolves, since the strength of the wind grows as you get raise the turbine above the ocean. "That’s kind of the next big thing: How do we get higher?" he says.
He envisions 800-foot-tall turbines made out of composites that are light enough to reach extreme heights, but strong enough to withstand the forces of the wind they harvest. And while some futurists imagine wind turbines growing like thickets along the coasts of metropolitan New York and down the eastern seaboard, these future farms are far more likely to be many miles off the coastline. "The further out to sea you get, the stronger the wind is, and the better the project is," Grybowski explains. "So there’s actually a strong incentive to get projects away from the shore."
Why You Won't See A Pacific Wind Farm Anytime Soon
After the Block Island prototype project goes online later this year, the company has other East Coast projects on the drawing board. The largest is called Deepwater One, a 256-square-mile wind farm 30 miles off of Long Island’s South Fork. While it’s still early days for the project, the company envisions a farm of 200 distinct turbines powering Long Island.
Why isn't the company looking west? There's a very simple geological reason called the Outer Continental Shelf. It starts along the East Coast and slowly descends for hundreds of miles into the Atlantic, keeping ocean depths relatively shallow—perfect for driving deep piles into the sea bed to support heavy turbines. By comparison, the Pacific coastline is extraordinarily deep. "On the West Coast, if you go even a mile or two off shore, you’re in a thousand feet of water immediately," he says. "It’s just a huge canyon, from the West Coast of the U.S. really close to shore, all the way across the Pacific."
That means it's impossible to build a wind farm in the Pacific with today's technology—but within a decade, that may not be a problem, as floating turbines emerge. "You need to use the next leap in technology, which is a foundation that’s not nailed to the seabed, but one that essentially floats," Grybowski says, explaining how these floating foundations would loosely tether a turbine to the ocean floor with an anchor, making permanent foundations unnecessary.
The 1,000-Year Wind Farm
In a few weeks, the construction team will begin the final season of work by laying down 30 miles of cable using a special submarine that liquidizes a 6-foot-deep trench on the seabed to protect the link between the turbines, Block Island, and the mainland.
The entire project was designed to be uniquely sturdy. While there are dozens of offshore wind farms in the U.K., Germany, and Scandinavia—which endure intense storms—they aren’t prone to hurricanes as the East Coast is.
The Block Island project was tailored to ride out extreme weather and be easy to repair. The foundations are designed to survive a 1,000-year storm, while the turbines themselves—and their 225-foot-long blades—are designed to withstand a Category-3 hurricane. If something worse comes along, the turbines themselves are relatively simple to repair at sea.
Yet, as storms get worse around the world, the whole wind-energy industry has had to adapt the design of wind turbines to withstand extreme weather. "The design standards have actually changed just in the last handful of years," Grybowski says. "Previously those steel foundations were designed to 100-year-storm standards. Now, we as an industry have moved to 500-year and 1,000-year storm standards."
Ironically, the worsening conditions of our climate, caused in part by our burning of fossil fuels, could pose a potential risk to the very energy sources that offer an alternative.
All Images: via Deepwater Wind