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The US Has Big Plans For Wind Energy—but An Obscure 1920s Law Is Getting In The Way

This story originally appeared on Hakai and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When turbine blades for the United States’ first offshore wind project left port in September 2023, headed for the Vineyard Wind 1 project off Massachusetts, they were traveling on a barge instead of a wind turbine installation vessel, or WTIV. These purpose-built vessels are common in other parts of the world and make the job much, much easier. A WTIV is a transportation and construction rig in one. Frequently equipped with a big crane, deployable legs, and a dynamic positioning system, WTIVs can support the installation of several humongous turbines per trip.

There are dozens of WTIVs plying the world’s waters. So, why were the Vineyard Wind 1 blades delivered on a barge? This expensive, inefficient workaround was necessary because of a century-old law known as the Jones Act.

Also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act requires anyone transporting goods from one point in the United States to another to use an American ship. And by a modern interpretation of the old law, an offshore turbine counts as a point in the United States. The trouble is, the United States doesn’t have any WTIVs. And without the appropriate equipment, the country’s offshore wind efforts are being plagued by the need for repeated, smaller-capacity barge trips that have added costs to projects already beset by financial difficulties. Danish energy company Ørsted, for example, cited vessel delays when it canceled two planned projects off the New Jersey coast: Ocean Wind 1 and 2.

The country’s first Jones Act–compliant WTIV, the Charybdis, is currently under construction in Texas. While originally planned for completion in 2023, labor constraints have pushed the Charybdis’s launch back at least a year, possibly into 2025, says Dominion Energy, the vessel’s owner.

The Biden administration’s goal is to deploy offshore wind turbines capable of generating 30 gigawatts of power by 2030. That’s more than 2,000 turbines. To meet this target, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), part of the US Department of Energy, says there’s a need for four to six WTIVs. But as 2030 draws ever closer, the incomplete Charybdis remains the only one.

The Jones Act is tricky to navigate. For a vessel to be compliant, it must not only be built in the United States and running the country’s flag but also be owned and crewed by Americans. Consequently, US shipyards enjoy a monopoly, which allows them to demand massively inflated prices.

When finished, the 144-meter-long Charybdis will boast over 5,000 square meters of main deck area and accommodate up to 119 people, supported by on-board cabins, mess rooms, and shops, as well as a cinema, gym, and hospital. But the WTIV’s cost has climbed from US $500 million to $625 million. Meanwhile, the major shipyards in South Korea could have built a similar vessel in less time, for less money, and with a more powerful crane.