HOUMA, La. (AP) — In Louisiana bayou country, where oil rig supply ships are as much a part of the waterside scenery as shrimp boats, a new kind of seagoing behemoth is taking shape that marks offshore wind power's growing presence in the energy seascape.
Louisiana shipbuilding giant Edison Chouest Offshore is assembling the 260-foot-long Eco Edison in coastal Terrebonne Parish, along the Houma Navigation Canal. It's being built for Ørsted, a Danish firm that builds and operates wind farms worldwide, and Eversource, a New England energy provider. When delivered next year, the ship will serve as floating housing for U.S. offshore wind technicians and a warehouse for their tools as they run and maintain wind farms in the Northeast.
Officials with the three companies were set to gather Tuesday under the bow of the unfinished vessel to mark construction progress and hail the role offshore oil industries are playing in the development of offshore wind generation.
It's long been understood that offshore oil companies possess know-how valuable for offshore wind, for example, how to maintain machinery in a salty marine environment.
Differences between the Eco Edison and vessels built for offshore and deep water oil rigs aren't yet apparent as the skin and bones of the towering ship take shape in a 120-foot-tall waterside assembly building. But the differences are there, said Daryl Owen, a consultant on the project. Workers in protective clothing tended computer-driven machines bending and welding sections of piping and huge plates of steel. Standing near the stern of the developing ship on Monday, Owen pointed to the deck of a nearby oil industry supply vessel.
"That's all open deck space for cargo," he said. "This vessel won't have that. It's got a lot more housing space for the workers."
The cargo will be different, too Owen added. "That vessel's got specialty tanks, all over, below decks, for specialty chemicals, fluids .... The wind guys don't need any of that."
While offshore oil platforms often double as living quarters for the workers who tend to them, the Eco Edison will be the temporary home for roughly 60 workers as it moves from turbine to turbine to provide maintenance.
Tuesday's unveiling of the work in progress comes almost a week after the Biden administration announced a wind power strategy aimed at providing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.
Globally countries are building out wind power and solar in a shift away from the coal, oil and methane gas burning that cause climate change.
But it also came days after House Republicans passed legislation to sharply increase domestic production of fossil fuels, and ease permitting restrictions that delay pipelines, refineries and other projects.
Louisiana politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, have been critical of administration attempts to curb drilling. And oil and gas remains a major employer and driver of the Louisiana economy. But they are also embracing the state's role in helping the offshore wind industry take off.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards recently announced that Shell will invest $10 million with New Orleans-based Gulf Wind Technology for a project to develop turbine components designed to operate in the Gulf.
Wind turbines won't be sprouting in Gulf waters right away. Although the Biden administration is considering the first-ever lease sale for offshore wind energy in the Gulf of Mexico, there are challenges to address, including slower wind speeds.
But Gulf cities and companies are "a big part" of what will make the offshore wind industry successful, said David Hardy, CEO of the Ørsted Americas region. In turn, offshore wind developers are creating high-paying jobs in the Gulf and giving companies a way to diversify to take advantage of opportunities in the energy transition, he added.
Ørsted and Eversource say they're investing hundreds of millions of dollars in shipbuilding across the Gulf Coast. More than 400 shipbuilding workers with Edison Chouest Offshore have worked on the Eco Edison so far. Parts of the ship have been manufactured at ECO facilities in Florida and Mississippi and shipped to Houma.
"People think about offshore wind and they think about jobs where the wind farms are. But the reality is, there are jobs being created across the country," Hardy said.
Because of century-old laws, only a qualified U.S.-flagged vessel can transport people and goods between U.S. ports. The Eco Edison is the first Jones Act-qualified wind farm service operations vessel in the United States. In Texas, Dominion Energy is building the first U.S.-based offshore wind installation vessel, the Charybdis. Ørsted and Eversource signed up to charter it first.
Jason Grumet, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, said the Gulf region is poised to become "the economic engine" of the offshore wind industry because of its highly-skilled energy workforce. Leading offshore developers are racing to invest billions of dollars to construct a fleet of specialized vessels, he added.
When the Eco Edison is finished next year, it will go to Port Jefferson, New York to serve three planned Northeast wind farms, South Fork Wind, Revolution Wind and Sunrise Wind. Combined, those projects are expected to generate about 1.7 gigawatts of offshore wind energy to power over a million homes.
McDermott reported from Providence, R.I.