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Craig Brown G'11

AUP Magazine: A Meaningful Career

Building the Block Island Wind Farm

As more and more states embrace sustainable energy targets, the US is increasingly turning to alternative energy options to pursue its green transition. As part of this push, Craig Brown G’11 helped pioneer the first-ever offshore wind farm along the American coastline.

In 2015, five massive custom-engineered steel platforms weighing over a million pounds each were loaded onto ocean barges in southern Louisiana. The structures were being sea fastened for a 1,000-mile journey via the US Gulf of Mexico to the northeastern seaboard, where they were destined to be installed in the Atlantic Ocean three miles off the coast of Rhode Island in waters over 100 feet deep. They were specially designed to support offshore wind turbines standing more than 600 feet tall and were engineered to withstand hurricane force wind and waves. The turbines would comprise a 30-megawatt offshore wind farm – the Block Island Wind Farm – the first in US history. In many ways, the event was, for me, the culmination of a change in life-course that had occurred unexpectedly more than six years earlier – a change that brought me to AUP.

Despite being told my bachelor’s in economics was a safe bet with good career prospects, it was clear back in 2008 that the floor was falling out from under me. I often recall the moment when, sitting at my work desk, I observed the stock ticker at the bottom of my computer screen start flashing red. It was signaling what was at the time the largest stock point drop in US history. I was in the undesirable position of being employed by a major banking and insurance company. Fresh out of my undergraduate degree and working in my first role, I had barely re-signed the lease on my apartment before it was clear that I would most likely lose my job.

After my experience of the financial crisis, it was a good time to re-evaluate and change course away from my undergraduate studies. I was drawn to AUP’s MA in International Affairs, having made an honest evaluation of my core interests: I wanted to work in an international environment, live in and experience different cultures, and build bridges – be they political, social, commercial or economic – between countries. It was fortunate that I became intrigued by the complexities of global energy early in my first semester. Flexible courses allowed me to analyze major energy issues such as Russian–European gas relations, the social aspects of resource conflicts in Africa or the politics of climate treaties. The energy sector is the perfect industry for a student of international affairs. Following this path led me to a career in an industry I find dynamic, interesting and global in scale and impact. What’s more, I had the pleasure of working on an innovative project with the potential to usher in long-term change.

Developed by a company called Deepwater Wind and now owned and operated by Danish energy company Ørsted, the Block Island Wind Farm provides carbon-free electricity to nearly 17,000 households. I was fortunate enough to work on this pioneering project as part of a small team at Keystone Engineering Inc. I was on the commercial side of the company, helping to build bridges between European and US service companies and dealing with businesses all along the supply chain to ensure the efficient execution of the project’s engineering and construction elements. Although Block Island is just a fraction of the size of the offshore wind farms constructed in Europe since the 1990s, its significance is enormous. Its development heralded the dawn of a promising new US renewable energy industry. Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Maryland will all see offshore wind farms installed within the next five years. Policy makers have touted these projects as vital to meeting states’ renewable energy targets.

The path has been anything but smooth sailing. There have been several high-profile setbacks over the course of nearly a decade, attributed to a myriad of factors: uneven policy support from state and federal policy makers, contracts going awry, and cost overruns burying projects, to name just a few. Launching the industry has been an ongoing exercise in navigating state and federal regulations, as well as solving unprecedented technical, economic, environmental and logistical challenges. The US lacks sufficient port infrastructure to effectively manage the transport of larger offshore wind components effectively, and investors have been reluctant to fund new port facilities at the early stages of the industry. It has required several international partnerships and sustained knowledge transfer to get us to where we are today.

Despite these initial setbacks, the success of the Block Island Wind Farm, coupled with aggressive state renewable energy targets, has recently attracted the attention of some of the world’s largest energy companies. Major European oil and gas companies such as Shell and Equinor, as well as utilities such as Électricité de France and Ørsted, are now key participants in the US market, seeking to work with the emerging US industry and policy makers.

The future of offshore wind power in the United States is looking brighter than ever. It’s one of the reasons why I return to AUP each fall to teach a graduate module on the UNFCCC Paris Agreement and sustainable energy policy. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to meet other graduate students with an interest in renewable energy; it is fascinating to hear what brought them to where they are today and to hear about their post-AUP ambitions. As I continue in my career, I hope to publish more research analyses and papers on global renewable energy markets and technologies. I am also excited to work on new renewable energy projects in small-sized and emerging markets; currently, I am working on pioneering technical and economic feasibility studies to bring the first round of offshore wind farms to the Caribbean region.

Article by Craig Brown G'11

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of the AUP Magazine

Read the full issue here