Deepwater Wind forges offshore wind energy path

Founder says they’ve learned from their mistakes
Fri, 07/31/2015 - 9:00am

There seems to be a common Panglossian refrain repeated by those associated with the Deepwater Wind Block Island Wind Farm project that has become hard to ignore. That phrase, which seems to be Deepwater Wind’s mantra, is “this is just the start of something bigger.”

It was a phrase espoused at the “steel in the water” ribbon cutting ceremony hosted by Deepwater Wind on Monday, July 27, and has been uttered at many other company events in the past. Deepwater Wind CEO Jeff Grybowski and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo frequently use the phrase when speaking publicly about the wind farm project.

Although Deepwater Wind founder Bryan Martin agrees with that axiom, he told The Block Island Times that he feels “It is the end of the beginning.” While Martin can envision a promising future for the energy company, he seems more focused on the present. “It has started. Steel is in the water,” he said, referring to physical construction of the wind farm. “Now we’ve got to get it right. All of the beginning stuff is behind us. It’s actually happening right now.”

Martin sits on the Deepwater Wind Board and is Managing Director of the private equity firm D.E. Shaw where he has been involved with energy investments and industrial buyouts. So while others associated with the wind farm project might have garnered notoriety in the press, he has managed to maintain a low profile. But the Block Island Wind Farm project appears to be close to his heart and he seemed emotional when speaking candidly about it at the July 27 event.

“I have a sense of humility about the project,” he said. “The number of people that have been involved in this, it’s a big number, with varied interests. On the one hand you’re very proud to be a part of it, and on the other hand I feel like we really have an obligation to get this right.”

Deepwater Wind reached a major milestone on Sunday, July 26 when the first of the five steel foundations weighing 400 tons was lifted off of a barge by a crane and placed in about 90 feet of water on the sea floor. Martin pulled away from vacation time spent with family to join Grybowski in witnessing the first “steel in the water” moment with his 12-year old son at his side aboard a boat chartered from Mike Ernst.

“Seeing the first lift was awesome,” said Martin, who noted that the size and scale of the components involved in the project are substantial.

“I don’t think any one of us will ever be getting that close to it again,” said Martin, who earned his Bachelor’s degree from Yale and a masters from Northwestern University. Speaking of the ribbon cutting, “That was one of those special moments. It was pretty cool to sit and look at it for a while.”

As a byproduct of building the nation’s first offshore wind farm, Deepwater Wind is credited with creating the U.S. business model for the manufacturing, production and permitting processes associated with such an endeavor. Martin credited Aileen Kinney, who he calls the “guru of permitting,” for handling the permitting process for the wind farm project.

Despite the optimism and success of the project to date, Martin is still aware that there is the potential for “stuff to go wrong.” He said he gained that perspective from his experience working in the offshore business. “It’s a little bit like knowing that you’re going into a situation where things are going to go wrong and hoping that everybody around, including you, exercises good judgment and makes the right decisions when you look back on it,” he said. “There is a pressure to get this right that we all feel pretty deeply.”

“This has the potential to be a great project that kicks off a lot of other good activity,” Martin added. “But we’ve got to get it right. ”

Martin said that if they didn’t have the issue with the rigging configuration on the first foundation then the company wouldn’t have learned what needed to be done to improve the foundation installation process for the project.

“So far so good,” Martin said. “The barges got up here (from Houma, Louisiana) faster than expected. The cranes got their lifts done. They ran into an issue with the lift baskets. They made the tough call, which was to bring the foundation into Quonset to re-rig it.” As a result, he said “we lost a week.”

Deepwater Wind President Chris van Beek said that the re-rigging involved adding a few ladders to the foundation so that the construction workers could access the steel jacket for proper installation.

“It’s a great example of what you want,” said Martin. “When I was told they were pulling the barge off-site, it was disappointing. But what we learned from re-rigging that particular foundation, we can now apply to all the other ones and get it back on schedule. So it was absolutely the right call. I’m glad people exercised good judgment.”

Martin said that he hoped that everyone involved with the project would learn from their mistakes. “That’s what we expect. And that’s why you hire good people. It’s not an accident that the guy giving the tour has a Dutch accent,” he said, referring to van Beek.

“And Jens has built something like a sixth of the world’s offshore wind farms,” added Martin, noting Deepwater Wind project manager Jens Hansen’s experience in constructing offshore wind farms. “That’s huge experience.”

Martin also said that the wind farm project is a “no brainer and smart for Block Island. The law of numbers,” he said, “power projects are expensive, and the population is small. And the power price is high. But something like this really helps Block Island. I think people are going to be relatively pleased with the finished product. And I think it’s going to help tourism, not hurt it. I think there will be a lot of people who will want to go out there just to see the wind farm. You certainly see that in Europe.”

As a comparison project, Martin noted that the Fenner Wind Farm in Madison County, New York, the first operational wind farm in the state, is a great example of a town benefitting from the tourism attracted by an onshore wind farm. It is also a 30-megawatt (20-turbine) wind farm and was built by Ed Stern who is a Board member for Deepwater Wind and one of the leading developers of non-utility, privately financed, electric transmission systems in the U.S.

“[Fenner] was a small demonstration wind farm,” Martin said. “When it got built there was ambivalence locally about whether it was a good idea or not. But then it attracted tourism and people who wanted to build wind farms. It was an interesting byproduct of that particular project. The tax base improved in that town because they received revenue from the wind farm. I hope that’s what happens here.”

As for the future, Martin noted that there were other offshore wind projects in the works in different states. Most notable is the next Deepwater project that will be comprised of 200 wind turbines and be located 15 miles off the Rhode Island coast in federal waters between Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island.

“There are opportunities for offshore wind projects in the northeast,” said Martin. “We need many more of these projects, but today Rhode Island is in the lead.”