The Emergence of Offshore Wind Infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico

Some days I step out of the office to take a quick walk, giving my brain some time to recalibrate. Most of the time, I walk to the water by the Port of Pensacola, which isn’t far from our office downtown. I began to notice that every time I walked by, nacelles—which are part of wind turbines—were stacked along the port far and wide. Come to find out, these were the same nacelles that travelled via railway past our office on an almost weekly basis. This got me wondering, what is happening with this cargo and where is it going?

Part of my curiosity stems from my background in renewable energy, and in particular, offshore wind energy. Earlier in my career I spent some time trying to get an offshore wind project launched off the east coast. After a while, that door closed and I came back to consulting engineering. Luckily, my interest and passion for offshore wind is satiated by Dewberry’s team of energy, ports, and intermodal experts who work in tandem to provide services related to these industries.

As it turns out, the Port of Pensacola leases its space to General Electric (GE) who develops turbines and nacelles for land-based turbines right here in Pensacola, and I understand they are gearing up for the larger offshore models.

GE’s nacelles stacked along the Port of Pensacola.
GE’s nacelles stacked along the Port of Pensacola.

Renewable energy is a likely future for our society, and it’s exciting to see smaller communities, like Pensacola, playing a role in making that a reality." David Tillar

Is Offshore Wind Feasible in the Gulf?

Some time ago, an individual in the insurance industry told me that offshore wind would never be feasible in the Gulf of Mexico, partially because of the low wind energy found in this area on average, but also because of the severity of our typical hurricane season. However, I learned recently during an American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) event that that is not necessarily the school of thought anymore. In fact, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) recently conducted a study of six potential sites in the Gulf of Mexico for a large-scale offshore wind farm. From that study, BOEM identified three sites for further review. One of those sites just happens to be right here off the Pensacola coast.

With the cost of construction of these large-scale wind farms dropping 45% since 2004, expectations are that it will drop further as more of the manufacturing transitions from Europe to the U.S. like we’re seeing here on the Gulf Coast. Other factors include lower fabrication costs for the blades, manufacturer refinements, and the shallow water foundation systems used successfully in the northeast are made just a few hours away in Louisiana. New Orleans is the epicenter for the oil and gas market and there are many similarities in the equipment and labor needed to construct these facilities, which are already present in the oil and gas industry. GE, along with other renewable energy companies, are creating larger, 12-megawatt (MW) offshore turbines to better capture the energy potential of lower wind speeds.

The Future of Energy

There’s a whole host of potential infrastructure needs that may present themselves right here in Pensacola as a result of these investments. Renewable energy is a likely future for our society, and it’s exciting to see smaller communities, like Pensacola, playing a role in making that a reality.