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Meet Orion, the next-generation vessel that’s key to the US offshore wind push

Aug 24, 2023


As the United States aims to embrace the next generation of renewable energy, advanced technology takes center stage in propelling ambitious projects forward. Orion, a new vessel originating from Belgium that was christened last year, has been dispatched to the U.S. shores with the task of constructing a wind farm situated 35 miles off the coast of mainland Massachusetts.

Devised by the offshore energy and marine infrastructure contractor DEME Group, Orion features a 5,000-ton crane, boasts nearly 60,000 horsepower and possesses the capability to transport payloads weighing up to 30,000 tons. Launched into operation in June near Martha’s Vineyard, this specialized floating installation vessel stands as a crucial contributor to the Biden administration’s push for green energy initiatives.

“This is about building a new energy infrastructure in the United States that doesn’t rely on the burning of carbon. And that, you know, can help us address the climate emergency,” Bill White, president at DEME Group, told Straight Arrow News. “Without vessels like the Orion, we wouldn’t really be able to build offshore wind.”

The vessel, measuring over 700 feet in length, is poised to construct 62 turbine foundations for an expansive 800-megawatt wind farm that will span approximately 160,000 acres of open ocean. Dubbed Vineyard Wind 1, it will be the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the country and is projected to provide electricity to over 400,000 residences and businesses within the state. The wind farm’s completion is also anticipated to reduce costs for Massachusetts ratepayers by an estimated $1.4 billion over 20 years.

“Here in Massachusetts…they’re procuring more offshore wind. Their next solicitation is going to be…somewhere around 2.4 to 2.8 gigawatts, which is 20,000 megawatts of power. And to put that into context, that’s about 25 percent of all the electricity that the state of Massachusetts needs,” White said.

Environmental experts anticipate that once operational, this $4 billion wind farm could reduce carbon emissions by a total exceeding 1.6 million tons annually, akin to removing around 325,000 gas-powered vehicles from roadways. As Orion works to install this renewable energy project to make that emissions reduction a reality, it will also be utilizing environmentally friendly technology during the construction process. The vessel operates on alternative cleaner marine fuels, bolstered by a waste heat recovery system that transforms exhaust gases into electrical energy. Additionally, a cold recovery system harnesses liquefied natural gas evaporation to provide air conditioning to the crew quarters on Orion.

“This vessel heralds a new era in the offshore energy industry,” said Luc Vandenbulcke, DEME Group’s Chief Executive Officer. “The combination of unique technology, load capacity and superior lifting heights will enable Orion to play an important role in helping the industry successfully navigate the energy transition.”

Installing these turbines requires environmental considerations to minimize the sound from construction and its impact on local marine ecosystems. To mitigate underwater noise during the building of this wind farm and its potential effect on nearby aquatic life, bubble curtains—comprising of large perforated hoses that form a ring around the installation site—are being deployed as noise-absorbing shields. These bubble curtains are created by releasing compressed air through the holes in the hoses, with an aim of dampening the reverberations from heavy machinery work.

“It’s a device that literally creates a cone around the work area and funnels. A very strong current bubbles up which acts to kind of minimize and allows it to kind of dampen the sound,” White explained.

Diverse marine species, including whales, fish and sea turtles, inhabit the region where these wind turbine foundations are taking shape, prompting efforts by DEME Group to minimize disruption. The company has said it will “always aim to mitigate the impact on the local environment” while installing a wind farm.

“DEME is supporting the effort in order to make sure that we’re not having any negative impacts to the marine mammals in the vicinity of the project,” White said. “In partnership with environmental constituencies and [non-governmental organizations], and scientists from around the world, who have basically designed what they believe will be the best ways to mitigate impacts.”

Following its work in Martha’s Vineyard, the Orion vessel’s next destination within the U.S. will be Virginia, where it will be responsible for installing 176 wind turbine foundations for a Dominion Energy-backed project. To ensure the safety of endangered North Atlantic right whales, the construction timeline for these turbines has been scheduled from 2024 to 2025, specifically within a spring-to-fall window that avoids overlapping with the whales’ migration season.

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