More & Faster Offshore Wind Is The Aim Of Maersk’s New “Rube Goldberg” Workboat

More Faster Offshore Wind Is The Aim Of Maersks New Rube Goldberg Workboat

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“Hold my beer” is the message that the Danish firm Maersk Supply Service is sending to the global offshore wind industry, which is beginning to feel the impact of a shortage in working vessels. The shortage is reportedly beginning to slow down the pace of offshore wind development, but not for long. Maersk’s solution is a new concept that deploys purpose-built systems to put more wind  turbines into the water, more quickly, and they are targeting the US wind industry for the first run.

A 30% More Efficient Workboat For The US Offshore Wind Industry

The new solution to the wind vessel shortage comes under the Maersk Supply Service branch of A.P. Moller Holding, which is the investment arm of the A.P. Moller Foundation, which is also a majority shareholder in the global shipping company Maersk along with members of the Møller family. So to be clear, Maersk Supply Service is a separate company, but its interests interlock with those of Maersk, which has been taking steps to decarbonizing its industry.

Maersk Supply Service is calling its new vessel the “next-generation Wind Installation Vessel.” The basic concept is to haul the WIV out to a wind farm construction site and park it there 24/7, while additional components are ferried in by a fleet of other purpose-built vessels.

“As a key component to the installation process, this newbuild feeder spread will transport wind turbine components or foundations to the installation site, while the wind installation vessel (WIV) remains on location to complete successive installations, allow faster installation, and thereby enable the wind park to be on-grid faster,” Maerks explains.

If all goes according to plan, Maersk will field two tugs and two barges for its WIV system in the US, sometime in 2026. They will be constructed by the Louisiana-based shipyard Bollinger. Another Louisiana firm, ECO (Edison Chouest Offshore), will undertake ownership and operation.

The Rube Goldberg Angle On Offshore Wind

Rube Goldberg was a US cartoonist of the early 20th century known for his depictions of elaborate, chain-reaction machines aimed at accomplishing relatively simple tasks.  Though his drawings where virtually impossible to replicate in real life, Goldberg’s satirical perspective on the relationship between machines and people continues to resonate today.

More to the point, Goldberg’s drawings have challenged generations of STEM students to push the boundaries of machine design. Whether or not some of those students graduated into maritime engineering is an open question. The WIV does not incorporate chain reactions per se, but it is designed to enable offshore wind components to transition seamlessly from the feeder fleet to the WIV, and from there into the water.

Maersk claims that its new system is 30% more efficient than conventional offshore wind construction. In addition to the specialized equipment aboard the WIV and its fleet, part of the savings comes from avoiding weather-related down time.

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Bad News For US Offshore Wind Foes

Maersk is aiming the WIV for the US wind market in particular. That may seem odd at first, considering that the US offshore wind industry has been suffering a series of slings and arrows since the early 2000s, when fossil energy stakeholders aligned with public officials to obstruct plans for tapping into the waters of the Atlantic coast (see more CleanTechnica “wind wars” coverage here).

New Jersey is a case in point. During the wind-friendly Obama administration, New Jersey officials under former Republican Governor Chris Christie reportedly slow-walked millions of dollars in federal funding for an experimental new wind farm to a watery grave. Things only began to look up after Democratic Governor Phil Murphy took over the reins in 2018 and launched a major new wind industry program.

Just two years later, COVID-related supply chain disruptions began to kick in, followed by a concerning period of inflation along with maritime labor shortages and a shortfall in available offshore vessels. The leading wind developer Orsted, for example, cited both inflation and a vessel shortage when it abruptly pulled out of two New Jersey projects last fall.

Nevertheless, the Atlantic coast is ripe for offshore wind development because of its relatively shallow waters, which enable conventional “monopile” wind turbine construction. Other essential elements are also in place, including seaport resources, an existing ship building industry, and the potential for recruiting a new maritime workforce from local communities.

Despite the obstacles, the US offshore wind industry appears to be back on track in 2024. One remaining issue to be sorted involves the tangle of US maritime regulations that limit the operation of foreign-flagged ships. Maersk is addressing that by building the new WIV in the US.

“The specialized solution aims to open access to a greater number of U.S. ports logistically,” Maerks explains.

“Using U.S.-built, -owned and -flagged tugs and barges to ferry turbine components, Maersk Supply Service’s innovative locking and stabilizing mechanism between the WIV and barge will render installations far less dependent on weather conditions, thereby reducing the number of operating days required to install a wind park,” they add.

DEI & The Maritime Workforce Shortage

Another obstacle confronting the offshore wind industry is an ongoing workforce shortage across the maritime industry as older workers age out. Training programs for new workers can help, but for long term growth the industry needs to reach out beyond its conventional pool of prospective employees.

Maersk Supply Service is among the leading maritime stakeholders to recognize that a strong DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) policy helps provide employers with the tools they need to expand their horizons.

The devil is in the implementation and enforcement details, but Maersk Supply Service does take the first step, which is to articulate a specific set of principles under its “Diversity & Inclusion Policy.”

The company also explains why DEI is a necessary evolution in the maritime workforce.

“At Maersk Supply Service (MSS), we believe that working to create a more diverse and inclusive organisation will benefit our business,” they state.

“Business success in a rapidly changing world depends on access to the best possible competences, skills and ideas. We believe that a diverse and inclusive culture will foster creativity, innovation, new ways of thinking and an environment everyone can feel engaged to reach their full potential,” they add.

We bring this up because here in the US, partisan politicians have twisted DEI programs into the new Red Scare, in an obvious effort to keep their base voters in check. Things are different in the real world of business, where employers are in hot competition to fill empty slots and attract top talent, too.  Despite the anti-DEI rhetoric, businesses like Maersk Supply Service are going about their business, which is to make money.

“We aspire to create an inclusive culture where employees from every background can contribute to their fullest extent,” the company emphasizes, noting that its efforts extend beyond rank-and-file seagoing crews to include more senior positions onshore.

That remains to be seen. In the meantime, the offshore wind industry is not the only renewable energy sector to realize the value of expanding their workforce recruitment efforts. Keep an eye on the US solar industry, where DEI is going strong despite political headwinds.

Image: This new offshore wind vessel is designed for seamless transfer of wind components to wind farm sites, with the aim of improving efficiency and avoiding down time (courtesy of Maersk Supply Service).

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