Growth in the US wind farm industry and what that means for clean vessel construction

Danny Terlip
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The US commercial maritime industry is poised to see major growth in the next ten years due to construction and maintenance of domestic renewable energy technology. Offshore wind turbines are one of the most promising technologies of this renewable energy exponential growth curve. Offshore wind resources are sited geographically near the bulk of US electricity demand, produce peak output during peak demand and the farms will drive the creation and protection of tens of thousands of new and existing US based jobs.

The US has set ambitious goals for energy production from offshore wind, targeting 30 GW of production capacity by 2030 and 110 GW by 2050. This has been met with action. In 2020 the offshore wind industry development and operational pipeline in the US experienced a 24% growth according to the US DOE1, to a value of 35 GW potential, yet less than 1% of that is currently operational. The global market is nearly an order of magnitude larger. To support this burgeoning industry, companies will need to make massive investments into windfarm construction and maintenance equipment which currently doesn’t exist today. Some of this can be aided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November 2021, which allocated up to $17 billion for ports and the marine industry.

The offshore wind industry will require a large variety of vessel types and sizes for construction, operation, and maintenance. The blades of turbines today span a diameter of 500 ft, with future turbine diameters expected to cover 800 ft. Turbine towers can be fixed to firm foundations on the sea floor, but most of the US offshore wind resources are in deep water and thus will likely utilize a tethered floating base design. Clearly, robust vessel fleets in multiple regions around the country will be required. A 2013 study by Douglas-Westwood1 found for a 30GW deployment by 2030, the US will need about 9 construction vessels and about 230 new support vessels of various types. Vessel sizes in this estimate range widely, with heavy lift, turbine installation and cable-lay vessels from lengths of 150 m and deadweights up to 19,000 tons, down to 15 m personnel transfer vessels. An article in the November 2021 issue of Marine Log detailed the challenges associated with timelines, complex financing and domestic construction some of these vessels which will be crucial to the success of offshore wind farms.

Many shipbuilders, vessel operators and fuel providers are looking to the future of the maritime industry. Not only are the International Maritime Organization, the US federal government, and multiple states releasing more stringent emissions and efficiency requirements, it is common to see windfarm construction solicitations requiring clean construction vessels or giving higher scores to bidders that include them. It is clear that emission-reducing technologies are badly needed. This large effort into retrofitting and new construction is a perfect opportunity for the maritime industry to move to zero emission technology, though powering these large and small vessels with zero emissions engines requires careful analysis of the available options.

Sandia National Laboratories3 showed that zero emission powertrains can meet the range and power requirements for many different vessel types. For limited range vessels that have time for recharging, batteries can sometimes meet a zero emissions vessel’s needs. But for the mission lengths needed to support windfarm construction and maintenance, hydrogen is the only zero emission fuel that can do the job. Liquified hydrogen is especially well suited for large, long-haul vessels due to its high specific energy: 3 times higher than maritime liquid fossil fuels and 20 times more energy storage density than today’s state-of-the-art marine battery systems. Additionally, the US is the largest producer of liquid hydrogen in the world at 241 tons per day3, with thousands of tons per day more in the planning stages.

The synergies that exist between hydrogen and offshore wind farm construction and operation offer economic and environmental opportunities that stand to benefit many industry players. The US is uniquely positioned to be a leader in this area. Hydrogen fuel can be produced and stored onsite using energy generated by wind turbines, making hydrogen an excellent energy storage medium for remote offshore wind farms. Hydrogen can be collected by transfer vessels and brought to highest value markets or could take advantage of existing offshore pipelines for transport, thus drastically reducing subsea cabling costs. Both improve the economics of a wind farm by converting previously curtailed (unusable) energy into a high value asset. Operation and maintenance costs of the wind farms can also be reduced if hydrogen powered vessels refuel at the job site, extending their operational capabilities. Not too bad for also being zero emissions.

Maritime applications pose additional challenges to the technology, yet many solutions already exist today. A pilot project, named PosHYdon, demonstrating the benefits of hydrogen production from offshore wind, is currently underway in the Netherlands. A number of zero emission vessels have been deployed globally to date, including the US flagged Sea Change powered by our hydrogen fuel cell system. A once-in-a-generation opportunity for the US maritime industry is on the horizon.

Have any questions about zero emission powertrains or the future US windfarm industry? Contact me at

1 Musial, et al., “Offshore Wind Market Report: 2021 Edition,” US DOE.

2 Douglas-Westwood, “Assessment of Vessel Requirements for the US Offshore Wind Sector,” 2013.

3 Minnehan and Pratt, “Practical Application Limits of Fuel Cell and Batteries for Zero Emission Vessels,” Sandia, 2017.

4 Decker, “Latest Global Trend in Liquid Hydrogen Production,” Brussels, 2019.