Artist's renderings of a finished Charybdis.
Artist's renderings of a finished Charybdis. Credit: Photo illustration courtesy of Dominion Energy

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Shipbuilders in the port city of Brownsville, Texas, are nearing the halfway mark on shaping 14,000 tons of steel into a vessel designed to ensure the country’s gamble on offshore wind is less dicey.

Meanwhile, 1,676 miles east in Virginia, executives with Richmond-based Dominion Energy who ordered the ship have their fingers crossed.

They are hopeful home-state regulators will greenlight a request by their subsidiary, Dominion Energy Virginia, to deploy the $500 million colossus to “plant” the country’s hugest — and Virginia’s first — full-scale commercial offshore wind farm beginning in summer 2025.

Dominion has dubbed its hulk Charybdis, after the daunting sea monster of Greek mythology. Eventually, the brawny, 472-foot-long vessel will be equipped with sturdy “legs” that stabilize it on the seafloor and a main crane capable of toting 2,200 tons — the equivalent of 4,400 grand pianos.

The looming challenge of efficiently securing 176 mega-turbines to the ocean floor off the coast of Virginia Beach is what prompted the parent company to dip its corporate toe into ship construction. 

After enduring a convoluted but ultimately successful process to install its precursor two-turbine pilot project in 2020, Dominion decision-makers are confident that investing in the nation’s first specialized installation vessel is wise — and potentially lucrative.

“The pilot helped educate us,” said Charlotte McAfee, director of construction projects at Dominion who has guided progress on Charybdis since early October. “It showed us that this commercial project is really best managed with a vessel with a U.S. flag.”

Even if the State Corporation Commission nixes the utility’s proposal for Charybdis to install what’s known as the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project, Dominion doesn’t expect the giant expensive ship to sit idle.

In fact, it is already chartered to handle turbine installation duties for two separate offshore wind projects in the Northeast slated to be completed before Dominion’s 2,640-megawatt farm.

As well, Dominion figures Charybdis can continue to be a workhorse as the Biden administration has set a goal of reaching 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2030 along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and in Pacific waters.

“Dominion has really been pioneering on this front,” McAfee said. “I’m proud to be part of it.

“We’ll find good uses for the vessel whether we’re permitted to use it for CVOW or not. The market is ready for the whole United States and this is the best way to install renewable energy.”

Dominion’s two-turbine pilot project, seen on a boat trip organized by Dominion in June 2021. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan

Advancing U.S. offshore wind out of infancy

One monumental hurdle to harvesting the ample wind along U.S. coastlines is the lack of homegrown industries that craft the foundations, blades, nacelles (which house the generating parts) and other distinctive components fitted together to create the sophisticated turbines. Now, they withstand lengthy and expensive journeys from Europe, where the industry has matured.

Another key obstacle is the obscure Merchant Marine Act of 1920. Known as the Jones Act, it shields domestic shipbuilding enterprises by restricting water transportation of cargo between U.S. ports to American-built and -owned vessels crewed by U.S. citizens.

Charybdis represents Dominion’s commitment to advancing American offshore wind out of its longtime infancy.

Offshore wind is crucial if the investor-owned utility’s portfolio is expected to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity generation by 2045, as required by the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act. The utility is also intent on reaching net-zero carbon dioxide and methane emissions goals by 2050.

The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, scheduled to go online in 2026, will power the equivalent of 660,000 homes.

Karl Humberson Credit: Dominion Energy / Courtesy

Karl Humberson, a marine engineer hired by Dominion in 2011, oversaw progress on Charybdis before McAfee inherited those duties. He is responsible for the installation and construction of the wind farm.

Four years ago, the company tasked Humberson with exploring potential turbine installation solutions. In May 2020, Dominion announced it was leading a consortium to build a Jones Act-compliant vessel. By autumn, the company had contracted with the global firm KeppelAmFELS to build Charybdis in Texas.

Humberson is aware insiders and outsiders are curious why an energy company took the initial plunge on a vessel that might not even ply Virginia’s coast.

“Let’s take a couple of steps back and look at CVOW,” Humberson said. “The idea is that this is something necessary and aligns with Dominion’s renewable energy and sustainability goals.”

Investing in a “purposeful vessel,” he said, is a boon for all U.S. players intent on advancing wind.

“If you want to be successful, you want to have the right tools,” Humberson said. “What we’re saying is to expand the industry, here’s the only right way we know to do it right now.”

Assembling and installing the pilot — a pair of 6-megawatt turbines in federal waters adjacent to the larger wind farm — was a logistical headache due to lack of a Jones Act-compliant ship.

First, the components manufactured in Europe made a transatlantic journey on a cargo ship, the Bigroll Beaufort, which docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

There, the foundations were offloaded onto an installation vessel, the Vole-au-vent, and transported to the construction site off the coast of Virginia. Then, that same vessel completed a second trip from Canada with the turbine components on board.

“This time, we’ll have 176 turbines, not two, so coming down from Canada would not make a lot of sense,” Humberson said. 

Without Charybdis in the picture, an alternative method is to put the components on a barge and transfer them to an onsite European vessel that could serve as the installation base.

“Using a barge and tugboat means double-handling everything,” Humberson said, emphasizing that turbine blades are fragile. “If you need to move this equipment, you want to do it once and you want to get it right.”

One of Charybdis’s benefits is providing an extremely stable work platform whether seas are calm or choppy, he said.

The height and weight of components are serious considerations. For instance, blades for the pilot project measure 253 feet. The monopile foundations are 220 feet long and weigh 1,000 tons apiece.

Those measurements are diminutive when compared to the heavy lifts in store with the commercial project. For instance, the turbines — the largest available — have a capacity up to 14.7 MW. Just one of those turbines has more generating capacity than the entire pilot project.

A blade alone measures 354 feet — longer than a football field. And just the visible part of each turbine is skyscraper height, stretching a soaring 800 feet from the top of the ocean to the tip of a blade pointed straight up.

$500 million is an investment in confidence 

David McFarland, Dominion’s director of investor relations, knows $500 million is a whopping price tag for anything, never mind a unique Jones Act-compliant ship.

“What Dominion Energy is doing is showing confidence in the offshore wind industry” and opportunities for it to thrive domestically, McFarland said.

The question he fields most often: Who is footing that bill?

It’s not ratepayers — at least not directly. Instead, the ship is being built for the mammoth parent company that owns multiple subsidiaries nationwide, including Dominion Energy Virginia. 

The majority of capital for funding Charybdis is being borrowed from third parties and banks, McFarland explained, adding that “making payments to banks is a shareholder expense, not something passed on to a utility customer.”

Leasing out Charybdis to other coastal wind projects allows the parent company to reap a return — somewhat indirectly — on that $500 million investment. 

For instance, Dominion Energy Virginia has folded the cost of leasing — not building — Charybdis into its request before state utility regulators seeking the go-ahead for the entire $9.8 billion wind farm project. 

“That lease is included in the cost of [the wind farm’s] construction,” McFarland said. “It’s spent on behalf of customers and is expected to be recovered from customers. Dominion Energy Virginia is looking to recoup that money.”

He is convinced Charybdis is a boon for the company’s utility customers.

“They’re better off with this vessel, because otherwise the cost [of turbine installation] would be higher,” McFarland said. “You do want the best solution for customers.”

Artist’s renderings of a finished Charybdis. Credit: Photo illustration courtesy of Dominion Energy

Charybdis already ‘hired’ in the Northeast

Charybdis is on track to be completed on schedule by December 2023, McAfee said.

Thus far, Ørsted and its joint venture partner Eversource, are the first to book  Charybdis for its Revolution and Sunrise wind projects. Their construction and operations plans are undergoing environmental review now.  

Revolution is a 704-megawatt project designed to serve customers in Connecticut and Rhode Island, while Sunrise will provide electricity to New Yorkers. Both are expected to be operating by 2025.

Ørsted, a global leader in the wind industry, has also partnered with Dominion on both of its wind projects.

Dominion said it was unable to provide figures for the daily rental fee required because those numbers are “competitively sensitive.”  

Willett Kempton, a professor at the University of Delaware who is a nationally renowned expert on offshore wind power, said wind developers negotiate those fees with Dominion.

Kempton said in an interview that he had heard from industry sources that those daily rates could be as high as $500,000, but didn’t know how accurate that number will turn out to be.

The daily fee for using a non-U.S.-made installation vessel is likely close to $250,000, he said.

While $500 million is a hefty sum to invest in a vessel with Charybdis’ capabilities, Kempton said somebody had to go first seeing as “this is the only way the industry knows how to do installations.” One such installation ship likely won’t be enough if the U.S. wind industry booms as expected, he added.

Companies without access to Charybdis or a similar vessel will likely resort to a feeder barge system as a stopgap solution to keep their wind projects on schedule, he said.

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has approved construction and operations plans for two other offshore projects: 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts and 130-megawatt Southfork Wind in New York. 

By 2025, the agency has vowed to advance new lease sales and complete review of at least 16 construction and operations plans, which represent more than 19 GW of renewable energy.

A hub grows in Portsmouth

Charybdis will be based in Hampton Roads and staffed with U.S. crews. It’s one enormous piece of Virginia’s attempt to transform its existing regional advantages — a robust maritime workforce and a port in Norfolk with deep water and no height restrictions — into a supply chain hub.

“The supply chain is in Europe,” Humberson said. “There’s a lot of talk about building it up in this country, but it’s not here yet.”

As evidence, he pointed to Germany, Denmark, Finland and Italy as sources for turbine components and affiliated infrastructure. Most of it is destined for a 72-acre site at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal. That space will serve as a staging and pre-assembly area, courtesy of a 10-year lease with the Virginia Port Authority.

The terminal also will house a blade-finishing factory operated by Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, the company contracted to deliver the 176 CVOW turbines. That work entails sanding and adding protective coatings to the prebuilt blades.

Beginning in 2024, while Charybdis is readying for the two wind projects in the Northeast, Dominion plans to begin driving turbine foundation monopiles into the ocean bed at the 112,800-acre CVOW lease area. The site begins 27 miles offshore and extends 15 more miles out into the Atlantic.

The largest of those 176 steel monopiles, manufactured in Germany by EEW Special Pipe Constructions, is 268 feet long and weighs 1,755 tons. Into 2025, a separate company will transport, position and secure those foundations without the aid of Charybdis. 

To protect the North American right whale, the window for that underwater chore is between May 1 and Oct. 31, per National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulations.

An ‘Odyssey’ into offshore wind

Charlotte McAfee Credit: Dominion Energy / Courtesy

When Dominion’s McAfee graduated from law school at Washington & Lee University in 2004, she figured pumps and suits would dominate her career wardrobe.

That changed after the young attorney was hired by the utility a decade ago. Eventually, she began amassing steel-toed boots as she pivoted to electric transmission and distribution projects.

Those boots are again serving her well for her regularly scheduled trips from Richmond to the Brownsville shipyard to monitor Charybdis’ progress.

“It’s not like I’m inspecting the welds, but I’m getting a sense of what I need to be coordinating at the shipyard,” she said. “In-person visits keep the communications open and candid.”

Devotees of Homer’s ancient and epic poem “The Odyssey” know that the mega-ship’s ferocious namesake lurked in a narrow passage between the island of Sicily and the toe of Italy’s boot. The monster was reputed to swallow the sea three times daily, causing a whirlpool that thwarted the protagonist as he sailed home from the Trojan War.

Part of McAfee’s job is ensuring that this version of Charybdis doesn’t wreak any such havoc before it’s ocean-bound.

So far, so good, despite two challenges. One was covering for her lack of maritime experience by burrowing into volumes about shipping. And the other was navigating an immense undertaking in the thick of a pandemic.“As far as the construction goes, Charybdis is a teenager now,” she said. “It’s just an honor to be involved. Once we’re finished, it will be ready to self-propel to Hampton Roads.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.