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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

How US protectionism is holding back the country’s offshore wind plans

The Biden admin has an ambitious target for new offshore wind farms — but a 100-year-old law is slowing down construction and ratcheting up installation costs.
By David Jen

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Amid several offshore wind turbines is a green boat laden with construction equipment. Clouds and a rainbow are in the sky.
A wind turbine installation vessel in the North Sea (Sina Schuldt/Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

This article by Hakai magazine is published here as part of the global journalism collaboration Covering Climate Now.

When turbine blades for the United States’ first offshore wind project left port in September 2023, headed for the Vineyard Wind 1 project off Massachusetts, they were traveling on a barge instead of a wind turbine installation vessel, or WTIV. These purpose-built vessels are common in other parts of the world and make the job much, much easier.

A WTIV is a transportation and construction rig in one. Frequently equipped with a big crane, deployable legs and a dynamic positioning system, WTIVs can support the installation of several humongous turbines per trip. There are dozens of WTIVs plying the world’s waters. So why were the Vineyard Wind 1 blades delivered on a barge? This expensive, inefficient workaround was necessary because of a century-old law known as the Jones Act.

Also known as Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act requires anyone transporting goods from one point in the United States to another to use an American ship. And by a modern interpretation of the old law, an offshore turbine counts as a point in the United States. The trouble is, the United States doesn’t have any WTIVs. The country could theoretically use a foreign WTIV to carry out the actual installation, and then use barges to transport things from shore to the work site, but that misses out on the biggest advantage of using one of the multipurpose vessels.

Without the appropriate equipment, the country’s offshore wind efforts are being plagued by the need for repeated smaller-capacity barge trips that have added costs to projects already beset by financial difficulties. The Danish energy company Ørsted, for example, cited vessel delays as part of the reason why it canceled two planned projects off the New Jersey coast: Ocean Wind 1 and 2.

The country’s first Jones Act–compliant WTIV, the Charybdis, is currently under construction in Texas. While originally planned for completion in 2023, labor constraints have pushed the Charybdis’ launch back at least a year, possibly into 2025, says Dominion Energy, the vessel’s owner.

The Biden administration’s goal is to deploy offshore wind turbines capable of generating 30 gigawatts of power by 2030. That’s more than 2,000 turbines. To meet this target, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), part of the U.S. Department of Energy, says there’s a need for four to six WTIVs. But as 2030 draws ever closer, the incomplete Charybdis remains the only one.

The Jones Act is tricky to navigate. For a vessel to be compliant, it must not only be built in the United States and running the country’s flag but also be owned and crewed by Americans. Consequently, U.S. shipyards enjoy a monopoly, which allows them to demand massively inflated prices.

When finished, the 144-meter-long Charybdis will boast over 5,000 square meters of main deck area and accommodate up to 119 people, supported by on-board cabins, mess rooms and shops, as well as a cinema, gym and hospital. But the WTIV’s cost has climbed from $500 million to $625 million. Meanwhile, the major shipyards in South Korea could have built a similar vessel in less time, for less money, and with a more powerful crane.

The reason for the Jones Act’s longevity, says Colin Grabow, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is that while it tends to benefit only a few people and businesses, the act goes unnoticed because there are many payers sharing the increased costs it causes.

The Jones Act is one in a string of protectionist laws — dating back to the Tariff Act of 1789 — designed to bolster U.S. marine industries. The Jones Act’s existence was meant to ensure a ready supply of ships and mariners in case of war. Its authors reasoned that protection from foreign competition would foster that.

Your average American has no idea that the Jones Act even exists,” Grabow says. It’s not life-changing for very many people,” he adds. But all Americans are hurt by the Jones Act.” In this case, that’s by slowing down the United States’ ability to hit its own wind power targets.

Grabow says those most vocal about the law — the people who build, operate or serve on compliant ships — usually want to keep it in place.

Of course, there’s more going on with the country’s slow rollout of offshore wind power than just a century-old shipping law. It took a slew of factors to sink New Jersey’s planned Ocean Wind installations, says Abraham Silverman, an expert on renewable energy at Columbia University in New York.

Ultimately, says Silverman, rising interest rates, inflation and other macroeconomic factors caught New Jersey’s projects at their most vulnerable stage, inflating the construction costs after Ørsted had already locked in its financing.

Despite the setbacks, the potential for offshore wind power generation in the United States is massive. NREL estimates that fixed-bottom offshore wind farms in the country could theoretically generate some 1,500 gigawatts of power — more than the United States’ electric grid is capable of generating today.

There’s a lot the United States can do to make its expansion into offshore wind more efficient. And that’s where the focus needs to be right now, says Matthew Shields, an engineer at NREL specializing in the economics and technology of wind energy.

Whether we build 15 or 20 or 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, that probably doesn’t move the needle that much from a climate perspective,” says Shields. But if building those first few turbines sets the country up to then build 100 or 200 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2050, he says, then that makes a difference. If we have ironed out all these issues and we feel good about our sustainable development moving forward, to me, I think that’s a real win.”

But today, some of the offshore wind industry’s issues stem, inescapably, from the Jones Act. Those inefficiencies mean lost dollars and — perhaps more importantly in the rush toward carbon-neutrality — lost time.

David Jen is a California-based science journalist.