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Foss Offshore Wind President Joel Whitman: ‘We’re laying important groundwork for this industry. We’re at the very forefront of something…transformational’

At 11:52 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2024, the first turbine rotation of the nation-leading Vineyard Wind 1 project delivered the first offshore wind power to the Massachusetts grid. Located 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Massachusetts, in U.S. federal waters in the Atlantic Ocean, Vineyard Wind 1 will eventually comprise 62 wind turbines capable of generating 804 megawatts combined. It’s the largest project of its kind currently under construction in American waters.

Foss Offshore Wind President Joel Whitman grew up in East Dennis, Massachusetts, a “little village on Cape Cod” near where Vineyard Wind 1 broke ground.

“Notably, the Cape is an area with a long history of maritime innovation—it’s in our blood. With this project, we’re helping reinvigorate maritime culture in New England, specifically, the ability to make a living at sea.”

Whitman encountered the beginnings of the offshore wind market in Europe while working for a subsea cable installation company that specialized in building ocean-based fiber optic networks. The company diversified into offshore power transmission during the early 2000s, as the European market was developing its first wind farm projects.

“I’ve always been interested in innovation,” he said, “and offshore wind is just that. Power cables are different from telecom cables, but they’re similar enough that we were able to develop business in European offshore wind, ultimately bringing that experience to the United States. One of the coolest things I experienced while working in Europe was how we would coordinate with smaller port towns—old harbors that hadn’t seen growth since World War II—and help reinvigorate them by creating new jobs and industry.”

When Jason Childs, President & CEO of Saltchuk Marine, presented Joel with the opportunity to join Foss on a project slated for his own backyard, he jumped at the chance.

“I knew the New England market, and I’d long considered how to construct an offshore wind energy project in my home state.”

Vineyard Wind turbines are transported in pieces, the tower and each blade separated for the journey. A Foss barge holding three 321-foot blades and a tower rising 120 feet is tethered by cables pulled taut and held in balance by two powerful Foss tugs. The tugs work in tandem to pull the barge through the narrow New Bedford Hurricane Protection Barrier and then over 35 miles of open ocean to the offshore wind farm.

The American Standard

Offshore wind farms are common in Europe thanks to 20 years of generous EU subsidies, but it’s a relatively new undertaking in the United States. Leveraging the experience from Europe, the deployment of wind energy is expected to progress more quickly in America than in Europe, allowing the U.S. market to avoid the early market mistakes made elsewhere.

In 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration jumpstarted the U.S. offshore wind industry with a goal to produce a sustained 30 gigawatts of wind-generated electricity by 2030—enough power to support roughly 12 million homes annually and replace 35 traditional power plants.

Over the next decade, it’s expected the U.S. government will invest approximately $75 billion in wind farms, ports, vessels, and other infrastructure. This significant investment presents opportunities for companies like Saltchuk, whose portfolio of transportation and logistics companies is poised to offer technical expertise on the water and landside.

“Delivering on Marine Transportation projects such as Offshore Wind is not new territory for Foss Maritime,” said Chris Mack, Jr., Chief Operating Officer of Foss Maritime. “Our experience in complex sealifts involving tugs and barges is complimented by our talented pool of Mariners.  Our ability to build successful project teams utilizing the diverse skills and experience of our Mariners makes us an excellent choice to deliver on complex projects.”

Conditions comparable to the European markets—such as high wind speeds, shallow waters, and the proximity of energy demand from large cities—make the East Coast the initial epicenter of U.S. offshore wind.

Currently, there are two fully operational offshore wind farms in the country. Block Island Wind Farm, located 3.9 miles offshore of Rhode Island, is the first in the United States. Block Island is a five-turbine, 30-megawatt project developed by Deepwater Wind, now Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind, and completed in 2016. The second project, constructed in 2020, Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind, is 27 miles off the coast of Virginia. The first phase of the project uses two turbines to produce 12 megawatts.

While these two projects provide proof of concept, they generate a fraction of the 300-gigawatt goal. At year-end 2022, the United States generated 50 megawatts of energy using offshore wind, 0.17 percent of the 2030 goal.

Vineyard Wind 1 will become the country’s third and most substantial project to date.

“The industry has ramped up in the past two years despite COVID-19 delays,” Whitman said. “The challenge is ensuring that Jones Act-compliant vessels are available to match the growth of the market and that well-trained US mariners and companies like ours that operate safely in extreme conditions match the demand.”

‘Laying the groundwork’

Construction on Vineyard Wind 1 began on Nov. 18, 2021. Foss Maritime signed onto the project shortly after construction commenced.

According to Whitman, the project consists of two phases—a construction phase to install the turbines, offshore substation, and the cables that daisy-chain the turbines together and ultimately run beneath the sea floor back to shore, transferring the generated power to the onshore grid, and an operations and maintenance stage necessary to keep the wind farm running at optimum production over the life of the project. Foss Offshore Wind is a critical partner in both.

“The installation of the turbines is only expected to last a year or two, but Foss expects to be in New Bedford for 30 years or longer supporting Vineyard Wind 1 and the neighboring projects which will be coming online over the next decade,” Whitman said.

Meanwhile, expansion to the West Coast is a few years away because it requires different vessel technology and, most significantly, floating wind turbines that accommodate the depth of the Pacific Ocean, Whitman said.

“Foss is always ready, always safe. We’re approaching offshore wind with a long-term outlook. We know that all sources of energy are additive and don’t completely replace what we used before. Foss understands that offshore wind is an integral part of the clean energy future for the U.S. in the most densely populated part of America. We’re proud to be part of that transition that adds a clean fuel source and a sustained maritime workforce in the North Atlantic.

“Just one sweep of a turbine blade can power a house for 24 hours. We’re laying the groundwork for this industry. We’re at the very forefront of something that will be transformational in how we use energy in our daily lives.”

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.