The shortage of ships capable of deploying giant wind turbines at sea will become an even greater problem as offshore wind ambitions grow. According to a recent analysis by Norway’s Rystad Energy, demand for wind turbine installation vessels is likely to exceed supply by 2024. That’s even ahead of a prediction the company made in 2020 when it said its global fleet would not be enough to meet demand after 2025.
Huge, specialized ships are needed to transport and install wind turbine components to sea. With just over 30 of these vessels sailing the world’s seas by 2020, offshore wind projects already have to compete for time with a limited number of vessels, according to Rystad. A growth spurt in turbine technology will exacerbate the problem.
Higher turbines can achieve stronger winds, while longer blades can harness more power. New turbines are the size of skyscrapers, dwarfing previous designs. Between 2010 and today, the amount of wind energy that can be used by a turbine has more than doubled on average from 3 MW to 6.5 MW. By the end of the decade, more than half of the turbines installed worldwide are expected to exceed 8 MW.
That is quickly making more ships — even those built just this decade — obsolete. Only four of the turbine installation vessels in use are capable of carrying next-generation giant turbines, according to Rystad’s 2020 analysis. The company measures demand for the vessels in “vessel years,” which indicates how much time it takes with the vessels to build offshore wind projects. Rystad says demand for ships capable of installing turbines over 9 MW “didn’t exist” in 2019. By 2030, it expects demand for such ships to reach 62 ship years.
The US, which recently opened up waters along much of its coastlines to develop offshore wind energy, faces even greater challenges. US offshore wind projects must comply with the Jones Act, which requires vessels moving between two points in the US to be built, owned, manned and registered in the US. To date, none of the existing installation vessels strong enough to carry the largest wind turbines is compliant with the Jones Act. The first compliant ship should be ready by the end of 2023. But it is also much more expensive to build such ships in the US. Still, the Biden administration aims to increase domestic offshore wind capacity from just 42 megawatts today to 30,000 by 2030.
Offshore wind ambitions are starting to take off around the world as economies move to clean energy. According to the International Energy Agency, the amount of offshore wind capacity added each year must more than quadruple by the end of the decade to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement. To achieve that goal, the world needs more ships – and fast.