This story was produced through a collaboration between Gothamist and Climate Central.
Before Chris Maldonado could hire a team to fabricate the colossal steel towers that will hold clean wind energy turbines aloft off the Jersey Shore, he needed to build a worksite big enough for the job.
During two years as a project manager for a German wind energy supplier EEW, Maldonado has overseen the transformation of a gritty industrial waterfront in Paulsboro, a small township in South Jersey. It’s being turned into a factory serving the offshore wind energy industry. EEW is developing the facility for its client, Danish energy company Ørsted, with $250 million in funding from the state government.
The factory being built here is the largest offshore wind manufacturing plant in the U.S., according to its developers and Gov. Phil Murphy. This week, it is receiving and offloading the components from Europe needed to begin assembly. Located at the Port of Paulsboro on the Delaware River, directly opposite the Philadelphia airport, the site was used for decades as a petroleum and petrochemical storage facility before the state rebuilt and expanded its marine terminal.
Despite the concerns of environmental groups about the impacts of increased shipping on the river, the port is now expanding to handle these enormous offshore wind towers. Construction of buildings and commissioning of machinery will continue at the 70-acre port site until the end of 2024, boosting its capacity and reducing the team’s reliance on pre-assembled components that require shipping from Europe.
“Anybody that’s familiar with starting off a manufacturing facility knows there’s quite a mountain that we have to climb,” said Maldonado, who has lived most of his life in nearby Camden. He’s been hiring welders locally and sending them to Europe for specialized training as machinery in the factory was installed and tested. “We’re taking off, and we’re in that mode of transitioning from construction to fabrication.”
The first monopiles – the giant steel towers used as foundations for wind turbines – are being transported here in pieces from Germany to be welded and coated and deployed to Ocean Wind 1, New Jersey’s first planned wind farm. The facility expects to start producing its own monopiles from raw steel at the start of 2025. Reaching as wide as 40 feet and as tall as 400 feet, these monopiles will be fabricated at the Paulsboro site then bolted into the ocean floor with piledrivers.
The towers will hold machinery including turbines and turbine blades that stretch over 300 feet, spinning over the ocean’s swells and converting power from reliably strong winds into a high-yield form of clean electricity, critical for confronting the global climate crisis.
Industry and state leaders view the Paulsboro site as the first of many land-based manufacturing and operations facilities in South Jersey, supporting a new industry that is expected to see more than $150 billion of capital investment over the next 13 years toward manufacturing, installing and maintaining massive wind farms up and down the Atlantic coast. Globally, the International Energy Agency expects offshore wind energy will be a trillion-dollar industry by 2040.
That holds out the promise of reversing economic and workforce losses associated with a transition away from fossil fuels. In New Jersey, electrical substations are planned at shuttered coal and nuclear power plants, and Ørsted is redeveloping a site in Atlantic City formerly occupied by ExxonMobil. For decades, the Paulsboro site was a wasteland of petrochemical tanks, and the city’s mayor expects that its rejuvenation will reinvigorate an economy decimated by the loss of refinery jobs.
“I’m a whopping 20 minutes from site, which never happens,” Maldonado said, laughing.
A new ocean industry
As the effects of fossil fuel pollution snowball into extreme weather disasters and public health emergencies, many East Coast states have set aggressive requirements for utilities to buy power produced from offshore wind turbines.
In September, New Jersey Gov. Murphy signed an executive order increasing New Jersey’s offshore wind goal to 11,000 megawatts of capacity by 2040, toward the state’s goal of having a 100% clean energy economy by 2050. For comparison, the two nuclear power plants still operating in New Jersey combine to produce about 3,500 megawatts of carbon-free energy every year.
Next door in New York, where lawmakers have mandated that 70% of electricity come from renewable sources by 2030, huge wind farms will rise 15 miles off the coastline of Long Island.
Some of New York’s power will actually come from the planned New Jersey wind farms. To serve this growing demand, the federal government auctioned off an additional 488,000 acres of offshore wind leases earlier this year in New York and New Jersey, which on their own could generate up to 7,000 megawatts of electricity.
The New York state government has not moved as quickly as New Jersey to break ground on the port and manufacturing facilities that will be needed to build and maintain these wind farms. The only viable location being actively considered for an offshore wind staging and assembly port on the coast of New York is the Arthur Kill Terminal, located at the southern end of Staten Island. This privately owned 32-acre property is currently home to a strip mall and a coastal forest frequented by deer and geese. In October, its developers received a $48 million federal grant to support construction of a new port here.
An offshore wind operations and maintenance base is also planned in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and a developer was recently selected for a manufacturing and assembly facility in Rossville, Staten Island. Manufacturing facilities are also being planned up the Hudson River, in Albany and Coeymans, but have been met with delays over environmental concerns.
By contrast, New Jersey is actively building facilities to capitalize on what will soon be a multibillion-dollar industry, in part by using public funds to push construction forward. In addition to the redevelopment of the Port of Paulsboro, the state government is building a 30-acre offshore wind port 36 miles south on the Delaware River. The New Jersey Wind Port will be the nation’s first purpose-built offshore wind marshaling port, where enormous wind turbine components can be assembled, stored and loaded onto ships. The site, built in a former marshland next to a partially shuttered nuclear plant, has the potential to grow to 220 acres and incorporate wind manufacturing facilities.
Located past the last bridge before Delaware Bay, its location ensures that ships will be able to carry the huge towers and components needed for the offshore wind farms out to sea.
The New Jersey Wind Port will be strong enough to withstand the extreme weight of these turbine components and large enough for specially designed boats that will ferry them out upright into the Atlantic Ocean. The boats that deliver and install turbines have extendable legs that sink down to the ocean floor, which can measure over 100 meters.
Unimpeded access to the ocean will be a vital part of the offshore wind manufacturing process, as wind turbines continue to grow in size, allowing them to produce more energy.
“These turbines are just getting bigger and bigger and heavier and heavier,” said Jonathan Kennedy, a senior infrastructure official at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which is managing the port’s development.
Once the site is operational, he said companies will be able to “manufacture these components in the types of facilities you saw at Paulsboro, wheel them out straight to a vessel and sail them out to the wind farm.”
Environmental concerns about scaling up
Environmental groups have expressed concerns about how this new system of industrial facilities along the Delaware River could affect its wetlands and marine life, including a critically endangered species of Atlantic sturgeon.
In July, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network announced that it was planning to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for violating the Endangered Species Act due, in part, to the impacts that the NJ Wind Port could have on the sturgeon.
Riverkeeper has said the increased ship traffic from the port and other new facilities being built on the Delaware River could drive the species into extinction. After being threatened with a lawsuit, the fisheries service ordered a reconsideration of the environmental impacts of the project.
The planned site of the NJ Wind Port is previously filled marshland at the mouth of Lower Alloways Creek, next to the Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station. The nuclear plant is surrounded by a vast network of protected wetlands, including more than 1,600 acres along the creek and the Delaware River that were restored in the 1990s by PSEG Nuclear LLC, the owner and operator of the plant.
Jeff Tittel, a prominent New Jersey environmentalist and former head of the state’s Sierra Club chapter, said the state should do a new restoration of wetlands along the Delaware River, to make up for the expected losses of ailing ones at its wind port, 150 acres of which were filled in with gravel, asphalt and materials dredged from the river. These damaged coastal wetlands were recently redesignated as uplands areas by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, allowing for the construction of the NJ Wind Port.
“I’ve always supported offshore wind, but when you build a facility you have to do it right,” Tittel said. “Those were coastal wetlands there, and for some reason, they were degraded, and now, because they’re degraded wetlands, they’ve decided to remove them.”
Kennedy said “high-value” marshes would not be affected by the NJ Wind Port, and that the development authority would work with state and federal authorities to mitigate the effects of wetland losses.
Out past the mouth of the Delaware River, locals are mostly concerned about the impact wind farms could have on the fishing and tourism industries — and to their beachside views.
Many of the companies bidding or working to develop the fleet of planned U.S. offshore wind projects are European businesses, which has exacerbated tensions with residents and businesses fearful of their impacts. Other companies moving into the sector include wealthy oil companies looking to diversify from offshore drilling to offshore wind, compounding the public distrust of a new economic sector.
“The developers really don’t have to answer to us,” said Tom Dameron, a fisherman who has been working with clammers and clam processors throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as they try to barter with federal agencies and private companies to avoid leasing rights to wind farms in productive fishing and breeding grounds.
“The biggest concern is the loss of access to our fishing grounds,” Dameron said. “They have to put their turbines close enough together to get the power output they promised the buyers of their electricity, and the spacing they require is too small for our fishing vessels to work. They’re so close and our boats are so big.”
Big turbines near big cities
While the new industry is causing some consternation among existing users of America’s oceans, government leaders and academics alike view it as critical for addressing climate change, with the U.S. the biggest culprit for carbon pollution and global temperature increases so far.
In 2021, researchers at Princeton University’s Net Zero America project published six potential pathways that could see the U.S. releasing no overall heat-trapping pollution by 2050. Offshore wind was found to be a key new energy source in meeting such a goal — especially on the East Coast, which is home to large populations and limited space on land for renewables generation.
“Offshore wind is particularly important for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states, which lack the kind of onshore renewable generation potential that we benefit from in most of the country,” said Dr. Jesse Jenkins, one of the Princeton researchers working on the project. “It may be possible to reach those goals without offshore wind but that would require substantially more long-distance transmission from the interior of the country.”
Jenkins’ team investigated the workforce that would be required to build out a network of onshore and offshore wind farms needed to help the U.S. reach carbon neutrality by 2050 — and found that New Jersey and New York could gain tens of thousands of new jobs apiece.
In early efforts to build out those workforces and capitalize on the growing economic benefits associated with the offshore wind industry, New Jersey is leading the way.
Paulsboro Mayor Gary Stevenson, who retired from an Exxon research facility associated with a nearby refinery in 2015, said a combined workforce of 2,000 at the joint facility’s heyday has now dwindled to a few hundred.
“All those good-paying jobs have gone bye-bye,” Stevenson said. He expects the new wind facility at the port will help revive the town’s economy. “With all the stable jobs it’s going to create in the middle of town, we’re probably going to open up another diner. And the hardware store is going to be better.”