The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 - known as the Jones Act - stipulates that all goods transported by water between US ports must be carried out by ships built in the US, owned by a US company and crewed by US citizens. While this protects US maritime and shipbuilding industries, it may seriously hinder the advancement of offshore wind in US waters.
Specialised vessels like jack-up barges, costing $150-$200 million, are used for the construction of many wind projects in Europe, moving between sites to assist where needed. But the Jones Act prohibits these vessels from sailing to the US to assist the nascent US offshore wind industry, which has yet to install a turbine offshore.
"The American expectation is that they are going to build with American ships and crew with Americans. I don't think the economies of scale in the sector make it worth the effort," says John Morse, business development manager for UK-based Gardline Renewables, which specialises in pre-construction marine surveying.
"I personally think that the Jones Act should be repealed."
That, however, is considered unlikely. Only in rare emergency scenarios will the US federal government make exceptions through specialised waivers.
"It's a major issue," says Mark Rodgers, spokesman for Cape Wind Associates, whose proposed 468MW Cape Wind project will start construction next year. Rodgers says his company is fortunate because the site is located in the semi-protected waters of Nantucket Sound, so they can use marine barges currently working for the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
The protected water location was very important to advancing the project, says Rodgers. "Many future projects may not have that ability because of the more harsh ocean environments they are proposing to operate in," he says.
Andries Hofman, an engineer representing SBM Offshore/GustoMSC, a Dutch builder and contractor for these specialised vessels, says: "We would like to promote our European vessels to the US market but that is not possible. But we are looking at alternatives like building a vessel here and staffing it with American crew."
Any firm considering building a vessel for the US market has to be certain it will have enough work to justify the expense. Wind must be its strong primary market, says Hofman, because most of the offshore oil and gas work is in deep waters where jack-up barges do not operate. "Initially I think local equipment will be used in the US, putting existing cranes on existing barges or offshore jackets. These are not dedicated for a harsh environment and bigger waves, so there may be only a few days of good weather when they can install," he says.
Additional problems include the extra costs of adapting the typical European jack-up vessel to fit through the locks in America's Great Lakes, and to cope with the buoyancy differences of freshwater rather than Europe's saltwater vessels.