Offshore wind farms: what’s the insurance angle?

In January 2019, wind power accounted for about 7 percent of net energy generation in the United States. While that doesn’t sound like much, wind power has been a significant contributor to new electricity generation over the past few years (though natural gas still leads the pack).

While most wind farms are onshore, wind farms on large lakes and oceans are becoming increasingly popular. Most notably, offshore wind speeds are much faster and steadier than on land. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that wind off U.S. coasts offers a technical resource potential of about 7,200 terawatt-hours of electricity generation per year – which basically translates to double the country’s current electricity use. Even if just 1 percent of this potential is tapped into, that can end up powering nearly 6.5 million homes.

What’s the insurance angle?

Constructing and operating an offshore wind turbine is no stroll on the beach. Start-up costs can be significant (though they have been declining rapidly). And many pieces – both literal and logistical – need to come together before a wind farm can start generating electricity: transporting the towers and blades out to sea on specialized vessels; sinking foundations into the ocean or lake floor; constructing onshore and offshore power substations; laying cable between the turbine and the land. Plus, there’s Mother Nature to reckon with, like hurricanes and lightning strikes (a very common danger facing wind turbines, unsurprisingly).

Offshore wind operations are complex, with many unique risks. But the insurance marketplace is sophisticated and offers coverage for all phases of wind farm construction and operation.

There is no standard “offshore wind turbine” insurance policy. In all likelihood, windfarm insurance policies are a tailored mixture of many different policies to meet an operator’s unique needs.

Let’s walk through some of the coverages that might be made available.

Wind turbine construction

Builder’s risk property insurance: this insurance covers property during a construction project. There is no standard builder’s risk form, so coverage can vary widely, but usually the coverage applies to the building being constructed and any materials being used on site.

Liability wrap-up insurance: Typically all the engineers, contractors, subcontractors, etc. on a construction project have their own general and professional liability insurance. But for big, complicated projects like an offshore wind farm, the project owner might purchase what’s called a “wrap-up”, which basically, well, wraps up everyone’s liability insurance into one policy. This both simplifies the risk management process and offers cost savings to everyone involved.

Delay in start-up insurance: Affectionately called “DSU insurance,” this coverage protects developers and owners of any revenue lost due to a delay in finishing construction. For example, if a wind turbine’s construction is delayed because of a storm, DSU could cover the operator for their lost revenue.

Wind turbine operation

Property/liability insurance: Like pretty much every commercial operation, wind turbine operations probably have a package of property and liability insurance. The former will cover the actual turbine from certain types of losses (like fire); the latter will cover the wind turbine owners from any liability they might incur against others, like if the turbine collapses and hits a nearby boat.

Wind operations might also have business interruption coverage, which could kick-in if a turbine stops functioning and the operator losses money during the downtime. They may also have separate coverage protecting them from any pollution or environmental liability arising out of the turbine’s operations.

Ocean marine insurance

Offshore wind operators may also consider ocean marine insurance coverages, which can include:

  • Hull insurance: insuring a vessel for physical damage.
  • Ocean marine liability insurance: covering liability arising out of a vessel’s operation, including collision damage and, often, wreck cleanups.
  • Ocean marine cargo insurance: covering damage to cargo on a vessel.

Insurance plays a vital role in developing offshore wind farms. Operators and investors already face significant costs just to get a turbine out to sea. Knowing that insurance will protect them if something goes wrong is one of the reasons they’re willing to take on these vital energy projects in the first place.