The Jones Act, long a stingray in the side of the oil and gas sector, could be a convenient way for the industry to enter the North American offshore wind business.

Partnering with an offshore wind producer by supplying a Jones Act-compliant vessel that could be converted makes both regulatory and economic sense, Andy Geissbuehler, managing partner at Renewable Resources International, said in a white paper released by the US Offshore Wind Conference.

The conversion cost for an existing vessel would be half that of building a new ship, providing a cost-competitive, domestic solution, Geissbuehler said. A newbuild would run about $300 million, he added, and the relatively limited volume of offshore-U.S. business would make that price hard to justify.

The Jones Act, formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, was written to ensure that the U.S. could support a shipping industry by regulating maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. Only American ships are allowed to carry goods and passengers from one port to another, and those ships must be built, crewed and owned by U.S. citizens.

But legislation crafted in response to the German U-boat threat during World War I hinders the fledgling U.S. offshore wind industry.

“U.S. offshore wind developers could benefit from a new generation of vessel designs being created for the European market,” the white paper authors said.

The new designs, developed by a consortium that includes Siemens, Rexroth Bosch Group, Schottel and Neptun Ship Design, are geared to handle the next generation of turbines that will boast capacities of 8 megawatts (MW) to 15 MW per unit. The towers of these offshore giants will stretch 120 meters (m) and weigh 1,000 tons, with nacelles weighing 750 tons and 88-ton blades that will reach up to 110 m.

Handling these monster turbines will require cranes able to carry 2,000 tons, or 67% more than the top capacity of today’s cranes. Each new vessel must be able to carry the cranes as well as up to six turbine tower, nacelle and blade sets, a helicopter refueling station and a jacking system that can operate in water depths of 60 m.

But even if the consortium succeeds in bringing the vessels to market, they will be European-made and therefore not Jones Act-compliant and unusable in U.S. waters.

A U.S.-built vessel designed for offshore wind turbine deployment may still be a viable option, despite the seemingly prohibitive price.

“A ship built in the U.S. can also work in other parts of the world,” said Harald Arndt of Neptun Ship Design. “It is not only an investment for the U.S.”

Other types of American-made vessels have succeeded in other global markets.

“In cable-laying, for example, task-specific designs have been shown to be vastly more efficient than general vessels within the European market,” the white paper said.

And the U.S. already has manufacturers capable of building the equipment needed to install 5 MW turbines such as those needed by the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. But installation of next-generation 8 MW turbines for offshore wind development growth areas like New York and Massachusetts requires more advanced technology, said Walter Musial, manager of offshore wind at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

“As turbine sizes get bigger,” he said, “it’s really about the turbine installation vessel that the U.S. does not have.”

Joseph Markman can be reached at and @JHMarkman.