Getting Offshore Wind Power Where It Needs to Go

Kelly Smith helps drive the complex logistics required to capture and transmit energy generated by wind turbines off the coast of Massachusetts

In the global race to tap renewable energy sources, Kelly Smith, E11, EG21, plays a pivotal role.

As a package manager with Ocean Winds, she helps drive the civil and electrical engineering behind the capture and transmission of energy generated by wind turbines off the coast of Massachusetts. That energy from their flagship U.S. project, SouthCoast Wind, is expected to be delivered to the onshore grid before the end of the decade, powering over a million homes and businesses. 

Ocean Winds’ projects are part of the rapid growth in the U.S. offshore wind industry off the Atlantic coast. While recent supply chain challenges have stalled some industry plans, SouthCoast says it’s on track to provide electricity generated from about 150 turbines being built in a one-nautical mile grid 30 miles south of Martha's Vineyard and 20 miles south of Nantucket.

The electricity will be transmitted to land through a point of interconnection established at Brayton Point in Somerset, Massachusetts, where 500-feet tall cooling towers were demolished to make room for the Brayton Point Commerce Center to support manufacturing and the offshore wind industry.

“The scale of this strong offshore resource is really exciting,” says Smith, framing it as a “large piece” of how New England can hit its decarbonization goals. The New England states have forged an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 33% by 2025, 50% by 2030, 75% by 2040, and 85% by 2050. 

“Even though these projects, because of logistics, permitting, contracting, and building, all take considerable lead time,” Smith says, “it’s fulfilling to know I’m a part of advancing the growth of sustainable and renewable energy.”

Why offshore wind

A native of Pennsylvania, Smith learned about climate change in middle school and was inspired to think about a career that would involve renewable energy. 

Tufts offered an interdisciplinary path. She majored in environmental engineering, then became an engineering consultant in the Boston area, focused on water resources. While working as a technical consultant on issues connected to cable installation for an East Coast offshore wind project, she learned about Tufts’ new graduate program in offshore wind engineering

The timing was right to return to the School of Engineering. “I thought it would be a good way to advance my career but still stay focused on the civil side of engineering,” Smith says. “It rounded out my understanding of energy sector interconnections, of all that’s involved with infrastructure and planning. That’s been an important framework for understanding how all the pieces of the puzzle come together.”

Life cycle of project development

Offshore wind project development is defined by what industry insiders call packages, with distinct ones coming into play as each project evolves and advances, says Smith. 

Each work package corresponds to a major project component and key contracts with the supply chain, for instance, securing turbine foundations or laying underwater cables. As Smith keeps the onshore package on track, she focuses on onshore components enabling the offshore wind farm to plug into the land transmission system.

The work involves overseeing the civil, mechanical, electrical, and pre-assembly operations critical to engineering, permitting, and stakeholder engagement. “We need to show due diligence. We need to share our proposals with all the experts across the various environmental and social specialties,” she says. “That phase has a long lead time and requires strong integration of technical and permitting.” 

Sharing expertise

Among the challenges facing the offshore wind industry is coordinating interregional efforts to ensure energy gets where it needs to go. 

“We’re still figuring out how we handle the onshore upgrades needed to interconnect big sources of renewable energy,” says Smith, who talked about those transmission challenges at a Tufts expert panel last year. “But there are policy changes coming into play from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that can help make the process clearer and more efficient.”

Smith also recently co-chaired a panel hosted by New England Women in Energy and the Environment, called Women Shaping the Agenda. There again, speakers shared insights on the challenges involved in bringing large renewable energy sources online.

Building out the new infrastructure will have construction and development-related impact, and the process to consider that impact and approve the projects needs to be reconsidered, she says.

“Often traditional regulatory review frameworks are built around conventional fossil fuels,” she says. “We’re at a point where we need to be rethinking how we study and, perhaps, even how we permit the projects.”

Smith understands that big projects take longer because time is needed to build consensus, but she supports the goal of local involvement. “I don't think any of us would want to live in a place where there wasn't community engagement and there wasn't an opportunity for voices to be heard,” she says.

A ‘working’ outlook

Taking the long view, Smith is optimistic that offshore wind can help the United States make progress toward decarbonization. Bolstering the industry, and other clean energy sources, is the Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to advance the Biden administration’s goal of a 50 to 52% reduction in greenhouse gas pollution from 2005 levels by 2030. 

“We've left the start line [but] there are days when I think we're not running the race fast enough,” Smith says. “Climate change is not the next generation's challenge; we all need to be working on it, and now. We have to do the hard, daily work that comes with recognizing what’s at stake, including revisiting what we are willing to pay for clean, renewable energy. Offshore wind power is a wedge of everything we, as a society, need to accomplish to fight climate change.”

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