Last week, Simon Mahan attended the American Wind Energy Association/Offshore Wind Development Coalition’s conference on offshore wind energy in Baltimore, Md. This is the final of a series of three blogs from the conference. Read the previous posts: Southern Jobs for Offshore Wind Energy and Overwhelming Support May Not Be Enough for Offshore Wind.
As I flew from Houston over the Gulf of Mexico to the wind conference in Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay last week, I couldn’t help but notice how busy our oceans are. Recreational boats, cruise ships, huge tankers and oil rigs were scattered all over the blue water. Down in the Gulf of Mexico, there are a lot of experienced workers that make a living from (and in) the ocean. The irony between seeing all the activities around offshore oil drilling and heading to an offshore wind energy conference was not lost on me. And it wasn’t lost on the conference attendees either – offshore oil drilling and offshore wind energy have a lot more in common than you might think.
On multiple occasions, the similarities between the offshore oil and gas industries and the new offshore wind energy industry were discussed. From the installation vessel requirements (jack-up barges were initially created for the oil and gas industries and have been used to install European offshore wind turbines), to safety (oil and gas experts are helping develop offshore wind’s industry safety standards), to structural integrity (oil rigs are meant to withstand hurricane force winds – much like offshore wind farms will need to be) and engineering (advanced wind turbines will use foundation types similar to oil and gas rigs, like tripods and floating technology), the offshore renewable and fossil fuel industries have a lot in common. Several companies that are from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were present at the Expo portion of the conference. Those companies were showcasing their manufacturing, engineering and logistics expertise that was developed in the offshore oil and gas fields and can easily be transplanted to the wind industry. To be sure, there were companies from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, but many of those (not all) were involved in the “soft” side of offshore wind – consultancy, design, planning and monitoring.
After the screening of “Cape Spin” (read about that in a previous blog), the director of the documentary allowed people in the audience to ask questions. The first person to ask a question was a gentleman from Houston, Texas. He had worked in the offshore oil and natural gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico and lived in the region for quite some time. Being a new-comer to offshore wind, he wondered why there wasn’t a more concerted effort to put offshore wind turbines in the Gulf – where, as he explained it – folks were use to seeing things in the ocean, and liked looking at a busy ocean. In particular, he liked fishing for marlin and didn’t see a difference between oil rigs and wind turbines as suitable fishing spots. In fact, there are a couple of potential developers for offshore wind projects off the coast of Texas. To my knowledge, the developments haven’t been met with the public relations disaster Cape Wind has experienced. Just the week before the AWEA/OWDC conference, Texas had their own event – the Texas Offshore Wind Energy Roundtable.
Maybe the people working in the offshore oil and gas industries are looking to offshore wind as a sustainable exit strategy. As existing offshore oil wells begin to sputter and run dry, the industry has been driven further from shore, into deeper waters to drill deeper wells – more extreme, and dangerous endeavors to develop so-called “deepwater” oil reserves. As the oil runs out, and oil prices rise, it becomes more economical to take these great risks. That’s why the Deepwater Horizon, the now infamous rig responsible for the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year, was out in such deep water drilling such a deep well. Even before that disaster, oil rigs were being installed at slower rates, and many more were leaving the Gulf of Mexico – the oil is getting harder to extract, and so companies (and jobs) are leaving the Gulf.
Meanwhile, offshore winds don’t run out, and they certainly don’t spill or explode. And the South is going to keep a strong focus on all things wind energy related, well into 2012. The American Wind Energy Association’s national WINDPOWER 2012 is coming to SACE’s backyard – in Atlanta, Georgia from June 3-6. Then, next year’s AWEA/OWDC Offshore Wind Expo is going to be held in Virginia Beach, Virginia from October 9-11. Yes, for the Gulf of Mexico, the writing may be on the wall that offshore oil and gas are slowly dying – but the offshore wind industry may just be the region’s knight, riding in on a white seahorse.