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Wisconsin builders could miss the boat

Sean Ryan
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Wisconsin will miss an opportunity to grow its shipbuilding businesses if contractors are forced to hire out-of-state companies to build boats for offshore wind farm projects.

Wisconsin has shipyards in Superior, Marinette and Green Bay that could build the vessels contractors will need to build offshore wind turbines, said Richard Stewart, University of Wisconsin-Superior professor and co-director of the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute. However, without state money to improve their equipment and shore up their ship design engineering know-how, the Wisconsin companies likely will lose out to coastal shipbuilders that already know how to build the vessels, he said.

“Without being very proactive, what will happen is the business will not be centered around Wisconsin or the Great Lakes,” Stewart said. “It will be centered in Louisiana.”

Officials with Edward E. Gillen Co., Milwaukee, see the offshore wind farms as a potential source of work, and they are looking over operations to see what it would take to get an early jump on the market, said General Superintendent Tom Miller.

“We’ve been keeping our ear close to the ground and kind of feeling out what’s happening and what equipment or changes we would need to do,” he said.

The company has a fleet of ships, Miller said, but needs a jack-up barge — a vessel that can extend poles to the lakebed and lift itself out of the water so the crane it carries is more stable. The company would consider hiring an in-state shipbuilder for the job if there is a company that can build that sort of ship, Miller said.

“I’m not saying that they couldn’t build them, because they could,” he said. “But it’s not something they’ve done in the past, at least not to my knowledge.”

The prospect of building jack-up barges for Great Lakes wind farm projects is attracting nationwide attention, said Matthew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America. Companies across the nation are likely to bid on the jobs, Paxton said, and the only limiting factor for coastal shipyards is whether the vessels they would build can fit through the St. Lawrence Seaway, he said.

“At the end of the day, the only way for them to get contracts is to be competitive,” he said.

In addition to the construction vessels, wind farm developers also must buy ships to maintain the turbines after they are built.

“The biggest (new market) is really wind farms and wind farms located in the marine environment, or the Great Lakes environment,” Paxton said. “It might be an old concept in Europe, but it’s a new one here and that’s something that’s going to create a new market.”

It will take about three years for Wisconsin shipyards to develop the ability to build the vessels needed to build offshore wind farms, Stewart said. The effort to develop that industry should proceed in tandem with the state’s ongoing investigation into how to develop offshore wind turbines, he said.

“If the general consensus is you are going to have offshore wind generation,” Stewart said, “then you need to look, at this point, what the requirements are for these ships and the shipbuilding facilities.”

2 comments

  1. Yes…”Wisconsin Could Miss the Boat”…. it’s called the Titanic!

    Is the goal here, to prop up the ship building industry in Wisconsin, or prop up the wind energy industry? Either way it’s a disaster, and the big loser is the taxpayer of Wisconsin escalating our ‘tax hell’ status.
    Re-read this article (including ‘between the lines’) and understand what’s being said. Put real live mechanisms in place of the lofty ideas being tossed out here and attach real world costs and efforts to those. Wind farms on land, are undesirable, inneficient, and unproductive…is there any reason to think they’ll somehow work better in the water?
    The level of spending that will be incurred here is stunning, and even more so when you realize it’s for a proven, inefficient source of energy. Tell me again how this can possibly be a better alternative to nuclear.

    Talk about spending a dollar to save a penny.

  2. Overloaded taxpayer

    So why is the answer that the government should help them learn the business.
    If they want to learn how to build them, hire somebody with experience (is that too simple of an answer?)

    If the government has to subsidize every business out there to be competitive you are kind of eliminating the competitiveness.

    With your logic, we should only buy cars, trucks, buses and trains that are built in Wisconsin. We are living in a little larger world than you may be aware of professor.

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