The Challenges of Creating Utility-Scale Renewable Energy Facilities

The Challenges of Creating Utility-Scale Renewable Energy Facilities

The development of utility-scale renewable energy facilities, particularly in the offshore wind sector, is a complex and multifaceted process.

Despite recent milestones, such as the U.S. reaching its first utility-scale energy generation from the South Fork project off New York, numerous challenges persist. These hurdles span financial, regulatory, technical, and logistical domains, each posing significant obstacles to the widespread adoption and implementation of renewable energy projects.

An offshore wind turbine under construction.
(Photo courtesy of South Fork via Engineering News-Record) The power transmitted from this 11-MW turbine installed late last year represents the first from a utility-scale facility in the United States.

Financial Instability and Project Viability

One of the foremost challenges in creating utility-scale renewable energy facilities is financial instability. Over the past two years, the U.S. offshore wind energy market has experienced significant financial fluctuations, leading to project delays and cancellations. For instance, while the 132-megawatt South Fork project successfully delivered power to New York's state grid, other projects have not been as fortunate. Inflation-driven cost increases have forced several projects to renegotiate power agreements or face cancellation. In New Jersey, two entire projects totaling 2.2 gigawatts were canceled, highlighting the precarious nature of project financing in this sector.

Locking in financing and supply chain costs early is crucial to mitigating these risks. Projects like Vineyard Wind, which secured funding and started construction early, managed to avoid the brunt of recent financial turbulence. However, securing financing remains a complex challenge, often exacerbated by fluctuating market conditions and policy changes.

A construction worker stands below a wind turbine.
The development of utility-scale renewable energy facilities, particularly in the offshore wind sector, is a complex and multifaceted process.

Regulatory and Approval Hurdles

Navigating the regulatory landscape is another significant challenge. Projects like South Fork and Vineyard Wind faced numerous approval process roadblocks during the Trump Administration, which delayed their progress. Although these projects eventually moved forward, the regulatory environment remains a critical bottleneck. For instance, the Atlantic Shores project in New Jersey is still awaiting its federal construction permit, despite being a major planned contributor to the state’s renewable energy capacity.

Moreover, state-level regulations can vary widely, creating additional complexity for developers. States like New York and New Jersey have aggressive offshore wind capacity goals, but regulatory hurdles and approval delays can impede progress. Recently, New York state regulators rejected power price adjustments for certain projects, leading to potential cancellations and necessitating new procurement rounds to ensure capacity.

Supply Chain and Manufacturing Challenges

The supply chain for offshore wind energy projects involves intricate logistics and manufacturing processes, each presenting its own set of challenges. The South Fork project, for example, involved the installation of Siemens Gamesa-made turbines and the first U.S.-fabricated offshore substation by Kiewit. The project's 68-mile, high-voltage export cable was also the first domestically produced cable of its kind. Despite these achievements, supply chain constraints remain a persistent issue.

One notable bottleneck is the construction of specialized vessels for turbine installation. The Charybdis, the first U.S.-built turbine installation vessel, has faced delays and cost overruns, affecting project timelines and budgets. Initially expected to enter service in 2023, its completion has been pushed to late 2024 or early 2025, complicating schedules for several projects that had contracted its services. The vessel's construction cost has also surged, further straining project economics.

Technical and Engineering Obstacles

Technical and engineering challenges are inherent in the development of offshore wind farms. These projects require the installation of large, complex infrastructure in challenging marine environments. For example, the Vineyard Wind project involves installing 62 massive 13-MW turbines, each more than 850 feet high. The technical demands of such installations necessitate advanced engineering solutions and robust project management to ensure successful implementation.

Moreover, integrating these projects into existing energy grids poses additional technical challenges. Offshore wind farms must be connected to onshore power treatment facilities and transmission networks, requiring significant investment in subsea cables and other infrastructure. Recent clarifications by the U.S. Treasury Department extending federal investment tax credits to these components under the Inflation Reduction Act provide some relief, but the overall integration process remains complex and costly.

Environmental and Community Concerns

Environmental and community opposition can also hinder the development of renewable energy projects. The South Fork project faced local opposition to its cable routing plan, highlighting the need for developers to engage with and address community concerns. Balancing the environmental benefits of renewable energy with potential local impacts is a delicate task that requires careful planning and communication.

In addition to community opposition, environmental regulations and concerns can affect project timelines and feasibility. For example, the U.S. Interior Department recently reduced the size of a planned mid-Atlantic lease area for offshore wind development due to military operation concerns, demonstrating the need to navigate various environmental and regulatory constraints effectively.

Two GPRS Project Managers using a ground penetrating radar and leak detection correlator.
GPRS supports renewable energy projects through our suite of subsurface damage prevention, existing condition documentation, and construction & facilities project management services.

Moving Forward

Despite these challenges, the U.S. continues to make strides in the offshore wind sector. States are stepping up their efforts, with New York ramping up project awards and launching new procurement rounds, and Louisiana initiating commercial offshore wind development in near-shore state waters. Collaborative efforts, such as Massachusetts' pact with Rhode Island and Connecticut to coordinate developer proposal selection and supply chain investments, also show promise in overcoming some of these hurdles.

While the path to creating utility-scale renewable energy facilities is fraught with challenges, the potential benefits in terms of energy transition, carbon emission reduction, and economic development are substantial. Continued innovation, regulatory support, and strategic planning will be essential to overcoming these obstacles and realizing the full potential of renewable energy.

GPRS supports renewable energy projects through our suite of subsurface damage prevention, existing condition documentation, and construction & facilities project management services. From utility locating and precision concrete scanning & imaging, to video pipe inspections and pinpoint leak detection, our SIM and NASSCO-certified Project Managers have the training, knowledge, and experience to help you mitigate the risk of subsurface damage. And our 3D laser scanning services combined with the abilities of our in-house Mapping & Modeling Department allow us to visualize your below and aboveground data in whatever way best suits your needs.

All this field-verified data is at your fingertips 24/7 thanks to SiteMap® (patent pending), our project & facility management application that provides accurate existing condition documentation to protect your assets and people.

From skyscrapers to sewer lines, GPRS Intelligently Visualizes The Built World® to keep your projects on time, on budget, and safe.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Does GPRS perform S.U.E. work?

Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) reduces the risk and improves the accuracy of subsurface utility readings. It is broken down into four levels of quality, governed by ASCE Standard 38-02. GPRS provides private utility locating services that complement SUE work, but does not currently provide a fully comprehensive, in-house SUE service. GPRS does not provide engineering services. If you need professional engineering services, please contact a professional engineer.

Can GPRS find PVC piping and other non-conductive utilities when performing a utility locate?

GPR scanning is exceptionally effective at locating all types of subsurface materials. There are times when PVC pipes do not provide an adequate signal to ground penetrating radar equipment and can’t be properly located by traditional methods. However, GPRS Project Managers are expertly trained at multiple methods of utility locating, including using electromagnetic (EM) locating to complement GPR scanning.