Keith Piper, a boat captain who has worked on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico for three decades, has seen his fair share of hurricanes and gales. Even he’d never been exposed to the conditions that put him to the test last winter at a wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island. Temperatures below freezing. It’s snowing. A nor’easter is blowing at 70 mph. His 500-ton lifeboat, propped above the waves on four hydraulic legs, was vibrating from the force of the wind.
Given the continental shelf’s rock-hard bottom, as opposed to the Gulf of Mexico‘s forgiving beaches, any error setting the boat legs down will feel like being slammed headfirst into concrete. He said, “It shakes everything and breaks everything.”
These are the kinds of discoveries made at the start of the offshore wind industry in the United States. Developers and government agencies all over the East Coast are gearing up for the enormously complicated and expensive task of deploying thousands of wind turbines taller than the Washington Monument miles out into the Atlantic.
The challenges that lie ahead are enormous. In terms of offshore wind growth, the United States is decades behind Europe and Asia. Just seven offshore turbines are operational — five in Rhode Island and two in Virginia — and the projects collectively generate only 42 megawatts of electricity.