Offshore wind ‘huge’ opportunity for East Coast businesses

A 21-meter motor vessel similar to the one that will be used to transport technicians to the Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm in Rhode Island docks to a worksite. (Seacat Service, LTD photos courtesy of Atlantic Wind Transfers)

A 21-meter motor vessel similar to the one that will be used to transport technicians to the Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm in Rhode Island docks to a worksite. (Seacat Service, LTD photos courtesy of Atlantic Wind Transfers)

By Peter Voskamp

About 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm will begin to take shape next spring.

The $290-million, 30-megawatt wind farm is expected to create 200 local construction jobs as well as longer-term maintenance jobs.

But one of the big challenges facing project developer Deepwater Wind is how on earth will technicians and laborers get to work – especially when the worksite is a patch of deep blue sea far from the shore in the Atlantic Ocean?

Charles A. Donadio Jr. is a Rhode Island native with experience moving people and cargo over the ocean.

Donadio got his start in the water transportation business back in the 1990s, when he purchased a sightseeing tour boat company. He then founded Island Hi-Speed Ferry from the mainland to Block Island, and went on to start Rhode Island Fast Ferry as well, which provides passenger ferry service from Rhode Island to the Massachusetts summer resort island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Last March, after Deepwater had successfully gained approval from 11 different state and federal entities to build the wind farm, Donadio had an idea for a new business: ferrying workers to offshore wind construction sites.

He approached Deepwater with a proposal to provide work crew transport service for its Block Island project. Deepwater agreed.

To learn the specifics of this highly specialized commute, Donadio traveled to the Isle of Wight and Great Yarmouth in the United Kingdom to see how crews were transported to and from offshore wind farm sites there.

He toured the SouthBoats and Alicat shipyards, boarded a crew transfer vessel and sailed to the Scroby Sands Offshore Wind Farm, and observed how the vessel docked to one of the turbines.

“I had the opportunity see the industry first-hand along with meeting with some of the top crew transfer operators in Europe today,” Donadio said.

Donadio’s Atlantic Wind Transfers, a subsidiary of Rhode Island Fast Ferry, now has a 20-year contract to provide transportation service to the wind farm site.

Maritime trade resurgence

Like Donadio, boat builder Marcia Blount of Blount Boats of Warren, R.I, has in recent years been monitoring offshore wind farm proposals like the Cape Wind project and Deepwater Wind’s Block Island farm.

Blount also traveled to the U.K. to learn about the offshore wind farm industry.

In the process, she secured the only U.S. license to reproduce a proven boat design that allows for the bow of the catamaran – with its two pontoons lined with thick rubber – to “hug” the leg of a turbine platform.

Atlantic Wind Transfers has since contracted with Blount to build an approximately $4 million, 69-foot catamaran that will transport the wind farm workers to Deepwater’s site.

Blount will employ up to 70 people to help build the vessel – a combination of permanent employees, contractors and sub-contractors. Most of the jobs building the vessel are high-wage positions. The vessel is expected to be launched next spring.

In keeping with the low-carbon technologies being deployed throughout the Deepwater Wind project, the vessel will be powered by modern engines that meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s toughest emission standards.

During wind farm construction, the vessel will ferry workers to the site every day at speeds up to 28 knots.

The specialized work boat will also be cross-certified, meaning that when it isn’t carrying up to 16 techs out to the wind farm construction site, it could take up to 49 paying customers on sight-seeing tours of the farm.

A huge opportunity

Donadio’s vessel operations are headquartered in Quonset Point, where he’s leased 5.5 waterfront acres and 600 feet of dockage close to where Deepwater maintains its manufacturing operations.

This Narragansett Bay location could also potentially provide services to the larger offshore wind projects taking shape in federal waters between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.

Three particular leases in that area – held by Deepwater, Dong Energy of Denmark, and Offshore MW – could lead to the development of 500 additional offshore turbines. (Deepwater Wind’s new Block Island farm will only have five turbines.)

Even more opportunities lie off the Mid-Atlantic coast.

As offshore wind takes hold, Donadio is confident Atlantic Wind Transfers will lead the whole industry nationwide.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for a company like mine that will have the experience and knowledge needed to lead this sector,” he said. “The potential is huge.”

Peter Voskamp is the former editor of the Block Island Times. He can be reached at info@cleanenergyworksforus.org.