On the western shore of New Bedford Harbor sits a visibly unremarkable 30-acre lot covered in dirt and gravel. Geotechnical vessels and ships unloading specialized cargo have tied up to its bulkhead, and in more recent years — with strong winds lending a symbolic touch — the site has served as a backdrop for officials making celebratory announcements about offshore wind.
The plain, often empty surface of the Marine Commerce Terminal belies the specifically engineered sub-surface, capable of supporting thousands of pounds per square foot, whether it be cargo, cranes or the intended purpose: wind turbines.
In as soon as four to five weeks, the first parts of a General Electric Haliade-X turbine — including blades the length of a football field — are expected to float into port atop a barge, some parts finishing a long journey that started in Saint-Nazaire, a city on the western coast of France.
Harbormasters and marine police vessels from New Bedford and Fairhaven will escort the barge and its accompanying tug boats through the barrier, which could take up to 20 minutes. It’ll take another hour and a half or more after that for the barge to reach the turning basin near the State Pier and arrive at the terminal to unload, according to New Bedford Harbormaster Sgt. Paul Fonseca.
This dance is set to happen more than 100 times, with each barge carrying one of the 62 GE turbines in and out of the port for what is on track to be the country’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind 1. While the project has already broken ground on Cape Cod to connect wind power to the electric grid, the sight of the turbines entering the port, for some, might be the moment offshore wind arrives.
“We had to go through a bit of a lull as the industry kind of went through a bit of a valley, got sort of recharged and then came back full throttle,” said Bruce Carlisle, managing director of offshore wind at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC). “Not that we haven’t had setbacks over the past several years, specifically with Vineyard Wind and their federal permitting. But we are super excited to be where we are right now.”
The staging terminal, operated by MassCEC, has been ready for offshore wind since construction was completed in 2015 — the same year its expected first tenant (and failed project), Cape Wind, pulled out.
With a multimillion-dollar lease with Vineyard Wind now running through the end of 2024, the terminal will support the storage, preservation and partial assembly of GE’s turbine components before they are sent to the lease site, about 15 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.
The site was designed to handle some of the heaviest loads — about 4,000 pounds per square foot, or 20,000 pounds concentrated. The quayside is engineered such that heavy-lift machinery can work right to the water’s edge.
The New Bedford terminal is the only heavy-lift, offshore wind facility in the country, Carlisle said, but it will likely lose that designation within the year, as ports along the Atlantic Coast, like New London, Conn., and Salem County, N.J., are building their own staging sites to support a stream of wind projects coming down the permitting pipeline.
“We need all of those ports, plus probably another half dozen or more to meet the Biden administration’s 30 gigawatts by 2030 goal,” Carlisle said.
Transiting the Port of New Bedford
In preparation for heightened vessel activity, the New Bedford Port Authority is developing a policy that will require larger vessels with limited maneuverability to use escorts while in the port in order to minimize conflicts between vessels.
“If it was a wide open port and people could go around large vessels more easily, I think I and all of us would be a little less concerned about those potential kinds of conflicts or interactions,” Port Authority Director Gordon Carr said. “But because of the nature of the port, and the busyness of the port, we needed to have some more formal guardrails in place.”
Per the Port Authority, neither they nor the New Bedford Police Department have the budget to cover expenses for vessel escorts, so it will need to be funded by Vineyard Wind. Smaller vessels with their own power and thrust will likely be allowed to traverse the port without an escort.
Port Authority commissioners during a February meeting passed a motion that the escort fee be set at $1,300 per escort vessel, at minimum, but that number could change.
“We and the city continue with Vineyard Wind to address this and other commitments of theirs, and am confident we can work it all out in advance of the increased frequency of large vessel arrivals that we know are coming,” Carr said.
Fairhaven Harbormaster Tim Cox described the town’s role as supportive: they’ll help escort the wind vessels when multiple escorts are needed.
“If our harbor was wide open and there was no hurricane barrier, it wouldn’t be as hard,” Cox said. “When they’re coming in, you have to come up ahead and make sure no one is inside the barrier coming out, and vice versa when they’re going out.”
Cox said they will likely direct any vessels, like commercial fishing boats, to the Fairhaven side of the harbor so that they can exit once the barge transits the gates.
Carr estimates the number of wind vessels coming into port could vary from one or two, to four or five a week during peak periods. Vineyard Wind CEO Klaus Moeller said they plan to pick up speed over the summer, when seafaring conditions are better.
“The summer time here is really perfect for installation, so we hope during June, July and August and parts of September to be very fast … but then the big autumn storms come and that will limit the installation, so you have a slow installation,” he said.
The wind developer was required to obtain approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to transit the barges through the 150-foot-wide barrier opening. There will be limits to what hours and under what weather conditions they will be allowed to pass through.
Part of obtaining that approval also included undertaking a comprehensive risk assessment for a barge hitting the barrier, and what the potential consequences of that would be. A report determined it’s rare or “less than unlikely,” but it’s a slim possibility that remains in the minds of those involved. At a February Port Authority meeting, someone remarked there are no spare parts if something in the barrier breaks.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Bill Keating’s office worked with Mayor Jon Mitchell’s office on draft language for the Federal Water Resources Development Act of 2022, which would authorize future projects for the Corps. They proposed more funds for expenses related to the maintenance and repair of the barrier, including a contingency plan for barrier parts that are critical or take a long time to replace.
In May of 2020, a geotechnical research vessel hit the barrier, causing approximately $600,000 in damage. The sector gates — which seal to prevent flooding — remained functional, but repairs to damaged parts were not completed until January of 2022.
A Congressional committee addressed concerns and directed the Corps to review what is needed before additional funds are allocated. The Corps said no one was available for an interview on the upcoming transits through the barrier for offshore wind, and declined comment on the review of spare parts.
Keating’s office issued a statement: “The Congressman’s staff has subsequently met with Army Corps to discuss the availability of spare parts and were assured the fabrication of replacement parts would be able to happen quickly … Congressman Keating looks forward to a final report from the Army Corps with specific plans that clearly articulate how — and with emphasis on how quickly — a unique, broken part could be fabricated and installed.”
What’s happening now
Throughout February, March and April, red cranes from Dutch company Mammoet have been on site — tall enough that they can be spotted as one drives along Route 18. One of the cranes will be used to build an even larger crane, called a ring crane.
Up the river from the MassCEC terminal, the New Bedford Foss Marine Terminal will also provide support for the Vineyard Wind 1 project, Moeller said, explaining Foss is providing the feeder barges that will take the turbines out to the wind site.
Andrew Saunders, president of the New Bedford Foss Marine Terminal, said the site would offer construction equipment and docking space. While it’s not been officially designated for this purpose, he said they can also offer “lay down” space for turbine components if there is overflow, and hope to be ready for that by June.
The first barge is expected as early as next month, with the target date to ship the first turbine out partially constructed by mid-June. It’s timed for about a month after the first monopiles, which are being manufactured in Rostock, Germany, are installed in the sea floor.
Coming in, the turbines will be lying flat, but heading out, the partially constructed towers will be vertical, potentially exceeding the height of the radio tower at the rear of the terminal.
“The sheer size of these nacelles … these things are going to dwarf anything that they’ve seen before,” said Gordon Mitchell, Vineyard Wind’s construction site manager, as he pointed to the smaller land-based turbines in Fairhaven.
The terminal can hold parts for fewer than 20 full turbines out of the 62, Moeller said. He’d like to see about 10 turbines readied in New Bedford before they start installation.
The wind industry has cited supply chain issues and inflation as placing economic strain on projects. Asked if there is any delay to the manufacturing of turbine parts by GE, Moeller said they are on track to start installation as planned.
“To be exactly on time is a big ask and there’s a lot of work to make everything ready, but we are ready for installation,” he said.
GE Renewables declined to answer specific questions, instead providing a written statement: “Components will arrive on an ongoing basis throughout the balance of the year. We are supplying the project using our global supply chain for towers, blades, and nacelles … including our nacelle facility in Saint Nazaire, France.”
It will be a difficult sight to miss along the port, but the harbor walk on both the Fairhaven and New Bedford sides will afford some of the closest views as the first turbine components make their way through the barrier gates.
“That first barge with blades stacked on it, it will be kind of a ‘holy cow’ moment,” Carr said.
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