Alongside the Brownsville Ship Channel, which shoots straight as a drill bit into the Gulf of Mexico, one of the biggest manufacturers of offshore oil rigs on the Gulf Coast turned 180 acres of dirt into a veritable gold mine. The shipyard there is a maze of 43 buildings, including 7 hangar-size assembly sheds in which welders’ sparks fly, pneumatic hammers pop, and signs warn in bold letters that any misstep could maim. Into one end of the factory slides sheet after three-ton sheet of steel. Out the other end, like intricate toys from some gargantuan Santa’s workshop, roll some of the heaviest and most sophisticated pieces of energy-industry machinery in the world.

During an extraordinary oil boom at the outset of the twenty-first century, the yard cranked out a steady stream of “jack-up rigs.” As tall as skyscrapers, these offshore platforms tap petroleum miles beneath the ocean floor and fetch about $250 million apiece. Five years ago the yard birthed a 21-story-tall beast called the Krechet, then the largest-ever land-based oil-drilling rig. But the Krechet—Russian for “gyrfalcon,” the largest falcon species and a predator of the Arctic tundra—has proved something of a dinosaur. Now pulling up oil for Irving-based ExxonMobil and its partners in Sakhalin, an island off Russia, it’s likely the last such oil rig the shipyard will ever build.

Today, in a pivot that reflects an oil-and-gas industry transformation sweeping Texas and the globe, the Brownsville yard’s workers are fabricating a new sort of ship. Like the old-style oil rigs, this offshore-energy vessel will head out to sea, lower its hulking steel legs onto the ocean floor, jack itself up on those haunches until it straddles the water’s choppy surface, and, in a dance of power and precision, drop into the murky depths machinery that will penetrate the subsea rock. This time, though, the natural resource the ship seeks to exploit isn’t oil. It’s wind.

A rendering of the wind-turbine-installation ship.
A rendering of the wind-turbine-installation ship.GustoMSC/Courtesy of Keppel AmFELS

Dominion Energy, the Richmond, Virginia–based electricity producer that ordered the vessel, will use it to pound pilings into the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Atop each of those submerged hundred-foot-tall pegs will sit a three-pointed, steel-and-fiberglass pinwheel whose spinning hub is about the size of a school bus and will tower some 27 stories above the waves. It’s the first wind-turbine-installation vessel built in the United States. As offshore wind farms, still found mostly in Europe, increasingly spring up along American coasts, the Brownsville yard is likely to build many more ships like it. 

That momentum gained further steam on March 29, when the Biden administration revealed an expansive new U.S. offshore-wind push that it said will include billions of dollars in federal loans and grants and a raft of policy moves designed to speed the installation of new wind farms off the nation’s East, West, and Gulf Coasts. Indeed, the announcement singled out the ship under construction in the Brownsville yard as an example of the sort of U.S. renewable-energy project that it hopes to foster. The administration claimed the offshore-wind industry would “spawn new supply chains that stretch into America’s heartland, as illustrated by the 10,000 tons of domestic steel that workers in Alabama and West Virginia are supplying” for the Dominion vessel. The trumpeted goal of this new federal push is that, by 2030, the U.S. will employ tens of thousands of workers in deploying 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity. (A megawatt powers about two hundred Texas houses.) That’s still less than half of what China is projected to have by then, but it’s massive compared to the mere 42 megawatts of offshore wind capacity in the U.S. today. Given that the U.S. energy sector typically plans big investments over decades, the administration’s timeline would be extremely quick. 

To any Texan inclined to laugh off the renewable-energy business, offshore wind offers a bracing reality check. From the sums wagered to the engineering required, it is, much like the oil industry, a game for those with deep pockets, strong stomachs, and big gear. A posse of politicians, eager allies of oil, wrongly blamed the disastrous failure of Texas’s electric system during February’s winter storm on frozen wind turbines. They implied that fossil fuel remains the only reliable energy source. Yet, more and more petroleum players, who must answer not just to home-state politicians but to global shareholders, are demonstrating through their investments that they view alternative energies as a source of growth for corporate profits walloped by an epic oil-industry slump.

Both the multinational company that owns the Brownsville yard and the one that designed the wind-energy vessel rank among the world’s largest oil-industry contractors. Both reported revenues last year of more than $6 billion; both racked up gaping losses on those sales; and both are seeking toeholds in renewable-energy markets. Oil’s problem is profound. In part, it’s the short-term shock of COVID-19, which has slashed global economic activity. More fundamentally, it’s the gradual petering out of the past century’s seemingly inexorable growth in oil demand. Mounting concern about climate change, as well as the advancement of cleaner technologies—from electric vehicles to homes powered by the wind and the sun—have triggered a long-term transition to increasingly affordable alternatives to fossil fuels.

A sub-block of the Charybdis moving down a portion of the Keppel AmFELS assembly line known as the “panel line,” where the steel is ground and components such as pipes are installed on the vessel.
A segment, called a “sub block,” of the future Charybdis wind-turbine-installation ship moves down a portion of the Keppel AmFELS assembly line where the steel is ground and components such as pipes are installed.Photograph by Ben Lowy

While recent oil-and-gas returns have been terrible, “there’s a lot of money on the come” in renewables, said George O’Leary, an analyst for Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., an energy-focused Houston-based investment bank. The firm is emblematic of the Texas oil patch’s changing worldview—long focused on oil and gas but now diversifying aggressively. O’Leary likens Texas oil executives’ newfound enthusiasm for renewables to their infatuation fifteen years ago with oil-and-gas plays in shale; until new technologies slashed the cost of tapping it, mining the rock had been widely dismissed as uneconomic. Fossil-fuel alternatives, O’Leary told me, are “almost like Shale 2.0.”

Keppel, a Singapore-based conglomerate and one of the planet’s largest oil-rig builders, bought the Brownsville yard and made it the centerpiece of its AmFELS unit in 1990. For much of the following three decades, the yard thrived. But Keppel reported that its energy business lost about $1 billion in 2020, mainly because of its global offshore oil-rig business. To try to stanch the financial leak, it declared, it planned to exit that business and focus on renewables instead. Loh Chin Hua, Keppel’s CEO, vowed in a statement to try “to create a nimble industry leader that is well-positioned for the global energy transition.”  

The reach for alternatives is equally pressing for NOV, the Houston-based behemoth formerly known as National Oilwell Varco, which designed the wind-turbine-installation vessel the Keppel yard is building. NOV is one of the world’s biggest makers of machinery for the oil-and-gas industry, employing some 28,000 workers. Those employees are dispersed among 573 facilities in 61 countries on six continents, but nearly one quarter of them—about 6,600—work in Texas. Last year NOV reported a net loss of $2.5 billion, as demand for new oil machinery dried up. Now, leveraging know-how it has amassed in oil and gas, the company is designing five new wind-turbine-installation ships under construction around the world, including the one in Brownsville. It’s outfitting several of them with jack-up legs and cranes it has adapted from offshore oil for offshore wind. Renewables are “fun for the organization at a time when the oil field hasn’t been much fun,” said Clay Williams, NOV’s CEO. By “fun,” he didn’t mean entertaining; he meant moneymaking. 

Crucial to Texas’s economy, the energy business tends to be portrayed as almost religiously split. On one side is Big Oil, the paragon of—depending on your worldview—economic realism or environmental calumny. On the other side is Big Green, the champion of—again, depending on your outlook—ecological progressivism or egregious handouts. These caricatures are increasingly outdated. Money, not morality, shapes energy, and a tectonic economic shift is redefining Texas’s energy landscape: an oil-industry decline more fundamental than just the latest down cycle, and a renewable-energy rise more enduring than just a subsidy-fueled bubble. 

The vestigial divide between old energy and new played out ritualistically during February’s winter-storm fiasco. A polar vortex that other states took in stride wreaked havoc on an electrical grid that’s been neglected for a decade by a succession of governors, legislators, and regulators. After the storm knocked 4.5 million households offline, many of them for days, killing more than one hundred Texans, Governor Greg Abbott told Fox News that the state’s “wind and solar got shut down,” which “just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.” Jason Isaac, director of an energy program at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank funded heavily by oil interests, wrote that the blackout showed “the numerous chilling consequences of putting too many eggs in the renewable basket.” 

Roughly 95 percent of new power capacity being planned in Texas is in wind, solar, and batteries. ERCOT projects wind power could jump as much as 44 percent this year.

That chorus was as ill-informed as it was unsurprising. For one thing, no one steeped in energy is seriously suggesting that Texas or the world soon will abandon fossil fuels. Though their use in transportation will wane over the coming decades, they are likely to endure far longer as energy for industrial processes such as steelmaking and as raw material for everything from fertilizer to surfboards. For another, all types of power generation—wind, solar, natural gas, coal, and nuclear—failed in the February storm, in large part because Texas energy officials had not heeded decade-old warnings to winterize plants. Wind turbines properly outfitted for the cold work just fine in frigid conditions elsewhere, from the Dakotas to Denmark. Though fully half of the wind turbines on the Texas grid froze up during those fateful February days, many of those that continued to spin cranked out more electricity than expected by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s main power grid. That partially compensated for significant natural-gas production that had been knocked out.

Yet to critics of fossil-fuel alternatives, the fact that Texas in 2020 got about 25 percent of its electricity from wind turbines and solar panels somehow meant the blackout must have been the fault of those loopy green machines that have caught on at dizzying speed. Last year, for the first time, Texas generated more electricity from wind than from coal. Roughly 95 percent of new power capacity being planned throughout the state is in wind, solar, and batteries, according to ERCOT. The organization projects that power generated from wind in the state could jump as much as 44 percent this year, while power from large-scale solar projects could more than triple.  

That surge in renewable energy presents real threats to oil interests. One is intensifying competition for government largesse. Accountings of energy subsidies vary hugely because of disagreements about what to include, but recent estimates of total annual fossil-fuel subsidies in the United States have ranged from $20.5 billion to $649 billion. For alternative energy sources, one federal study put the number at $6.7 billion for 2016, though it counted only direct federal aid. Whatever the numbers, the political pendulum is swinging away from oil and gas. In January President Biden issued an executive order on climate change that included a demand that the federal government “ensure that, to the extent consistent with applicable law, federal funding is not directly subsidizing fossil fuels.” 

Workers welding steel on one of the sections of the Charybdis wind-turbine-installation vessel – a section known as a “sub-block.
Sheets of steel that have been cut, beveled, and shaped are welded into sub blocks. Photograph by Ben Lowy
A worker welding one of the sub-blocks of the Charybdis.
A welder works on one of the sub blocks of the Charybdis. Photograph by Ben Lowy
Left: Sheets of steel that have been cut, beveled, and shaped are welded into sub blocks. Photograph by Ben Lowy
Top: A welder works on one of the sub blocks of the Charybdis. Photograph by Ben Lowy

Losing subsidies is just one danger that oil and gas face. A scarier one is losing market share. Even fossil-fuel firms that decide to chase renewable energy may lose out to nimbler and deeper-pocketed competitors. Pure-play wind- and solar-energy companies are becoming potent forces, and tech giants such as Apple and Google, whose market values now dwarf those of the dominant publicly traded oil companies, are charging into the race. 

Still, more and more Texas companies are harnessing skills they’ve amassed in their fossil-fuel businesses to try to carve out a competitive edge in the cutthroat clean-energy market. “What the oil-and-gas companies are doing is asking, ‘What do we do and what does that skill set allow us to do in renewables?’ ” said James West, an oil-industry analyst for New York–based investment bank Evercore ISI. “There’s a bit of FOMO on the part of corporations” in the Texas oil patch that are entering the alternative-energy sector, he said, nodding to that most intense of capitalist drivers, fear of missing out. As more Texas oil executives jump on the renewables bandwagon, West describes their reasoning as something like this: “If it does work, we don’t want to be the guys who look dumb two years from now.”

Texas is particularly well-positioned to benefit as the oil-and-gas industry repurposes for renewables. Thus far this year, the ERCOT power grid has secured long-term deals to hook up more new wind and solar capacity than any other grid in the country, according to data from energy-research firm BloombergNEF. One of its analysts, Kyle Harrison, said a sizable chunk of that renewable energy is being bought by large oil companies with extensive operations in Texas that feel mounting heat to trim their carbon footprints. Many of those companies, moreover, have huge rosters of employees whose skills in drilling are applicable to greener sources. Home to about half of all U.S. jobs in oil-and-gas production, and to nearly three quarters of the nation’s petrochemical production, Texas has “an incredible base of engineering, materials-science, and organic-chemistry talent,” said Jesse Thompson, a Houston-based senior business economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “There’s a lot of that talent that can pivot.”

February’s blackout underscored that the fossil-fuel business ranks among the most voracious electricity users in Texas. Significant portions of the state’s natural-gas production stopped not just because pumping equipment froze but also because much that didn’t freeze lost power. That thirst means the easiest renewables play for many oil companies is to buy green juice to fuel their brown operations. ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum have contracted to buy solar energy to help power their activities in the Permian Basin. Baker Hughes, a large oil-field-services firm, has plans to source all the electricity it uses in Texas from wind and solar projects. Dow Chemical contracted to buy power from a South Texas solar farm to reduce the amount of fossil-fueled electricity used at its petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast.

A deeper commitment for an oil company is to buy a stake in a renewables project—not just to consume the power, but to bank the returns. In a sign of the maturation of alternative energy sources, many on Wall Street have come to view wind and solar as paying off in cash more reliably than oil and gas do. Among the most aggressive practitioners of this strategy is Total, the French oil giant, which several years ago bought a controlling stake in California-based solar-panel maker SunPower and bought French battery maker Saft, and which projects that renewables and electricity production could account for 40 percent of its sales by 2050—admittedly, a long time out. In February Total announced it’s buying four projects in the Houston area that collectively have the capacity to produce 2,200 megawatts of electricity from solar and 600 megawatts from batteries. Total will use less than half that power for its own operations, selling the rest.

NOV has grown through a dogged intent to dominate markets. Now it’s applying to renewables the no-holds-barred tactics it honed in oil.

The most disciplined oil firms entering the alternative-energy race are doing much more than writing checks. They’re assessing where they can most profitably parlay skills they’ve refined in oil and gas. NOV and Keppel are attempting that sort of reorientation. Unlike oil producers, whose chief assets are hydrocarbons trapped in subterranean rocks, these global contractors have skills, factories, engineers, and money that they can relatively easily redeploy to non-fossil-fuel energy sectors. West, the Evercore analyst, dubs these kinds of companies the “picks and shovels” of the petroleum world.

NOV is more like a bulldozer. It has grown through aggressive acquisitions and a dogged intent to dominate markets. Its nickname in the industry, noted West, is “No Other Vendor”—meaning that if you’re an energy producer and “something breaks on your rig, you’ve got to call NOV, because there’s nobody else.” Now the company is applying to renewables the no-holds-barred tactics it honed in oil.

When I spoke over Zoom with Williams, NOV’s leader, everything about him screamed oil CEO: his white shirt with button-down collar; his quietly patterned tie; the conference table dominating the space between his desk and his Houston office’s wall of uninterrupted windows; and, hanging over a credenza behind his right shoulder, the painting of three cowboys on horseback riding through an oil boomtown. NOV has no intention of exiting the petroleum sector, which Williams predicts will provide the bulk of its revenue for years to come. He estimates that in 2021 the company’s wind business will yield only about $200 million, about 3 percent of its likely sales, and that other renewables won’t add significantly to that.

NOV isn’t shifting attention to renewables out of an altruistic desire to go green. It hasn’t pledged to reduce its carbon footprint or endorsed the notion of governments setting a price on emissions, unlike some major oil producers and even the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main trade group. Williams sympathizes with those whose motivation is “changing the world,” he told me, but “we’ve got to get our money back on this, and then some, as capitalists.” He sees alternative energy—not just wind, but also solar, hydrogen, geothermal, and several others—as a huge new market, one with a growth trajectory and profit margins likely to far outpace those of oil and gas. “I think they’re the future of the company.”

A worker standing by a section of Charybdis reading project drawings for the construction of the ship.
A worker reads project drawings for the construction of the Charybdis.Photograph by Ben Lowy

For decades, NOV, like many of its oil-field-services competitors, limited its renewable-energy activity to one technology: geothermal, which involves tapping naturally occurring underground heat to power turbines and generate electricity. That process  has a lot in common with producing oil: it requires drilling wells to pull up hot subterranean liquids and installing pipes, gauges, and other equipment to manage those liquids once they come out of the ground. Among the products NOV sells to the geothermal sector are well-drilling bits and fiberglass-lined well pipe. “It’s a good business,” Williams said. “But, compared to our oil-field business, it’s not that big.”

The oil business was a bonanza during the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century, with runaway economic growth in Asia ballooning global demand. Particularly after 2006, aside from a brief swoon during the 2008 global financial crisis, prices soared. When Williams was named NOV’s CEO, in February 2014, a barrel of oil fetched about $114. As he recalled that era during our conversation, his face reddened with excitement. “It was,” he said, “fantastic.” 

One reason prices stayed high for so long was that OPEC had propped them up by constraining its production amid increasing U.S. output. But in the spring of 2014 prices dipped, and they fell even further after OPEC announced at a meeting that November that it would keep its pump jacks rocking, a move widely interpreted as a bid to flush out its American competitors. 

By 2017 the cost of a barrel was stuck around $50. Meanwhile, the surging popularity and plummeting costs of wind and solar power had emboldened governments to push aggressively for carbon reductions. Williams gathered some eighty NOV executives for an “energy-transition forum” to figure out how to manage in a world that suddenly had gotten a lot less fun. He deputized one senior engineer to lead a team sniffing for opportunities at alternative-energy conferences. He assigned other engineers to “secretive Manhattan Project–type undertakings”—ideas that could leverage NOV’s oil-and-gas expertise “to carve out a competitive advantage” in clean energy.

Some of those ideas remain in play. One, Williams told me, is a more efficient way to build solar farms, which, from West Texas to the Middle East, are growing ever more massive as major companies invest in them. The construction of these facilities typically is “like the biggest Ikea furniture-assembly project anyone’s ever seen,” he noted. NOV is trying to come up with a better process, though Williams refused to spill details. Another idea is a potential new way to store ammonia—a chemical NOV already builds equipment to handle—for the production of hydrogen, an element of increasing interest as a means of transporting vast quantities of wind and solar energy for the production of electricity. 

NOV continues to pursue plenty of wind-energy bets. In 2018, it bought GustoMSC, a Netherlands-based builder with a dominant position in the design of ships to serve Europe’s burgeoning offshore-wind industry. In 2019 NOV bought a stake in Denver-based Keystone Tower Systems,which NOV believes has devised a way to build taller wind-turbine towers less expensively. Rather than employ the prevailing method of fabricating each tubular tower by welding together curved steel sheets, Keystone plans to make them using a continuous steel spiral, vaguely resembling a cardboard toilet-paper roll. Because a spiral structure adds strength to a tube, the approach should allow for the use of less steel.

“The energy transition is probably more attainable” for firms making machinery than for those whose money comes from selling black gold.

NOV’s venture arm invested several million dollars—it declined to give an exact figure—into Keystone. That’s hardly big money for NOV, but the company sees the investment as a way to harness its strengths to enter a fast-growing market. The deal allowed NOV to reopen a factory where it used to build oil rigs, one it had shuttered last year amid the oil-market downturn. It’s located in the Panhandle town of Pampa, smack in the middle not just of America’s oil patch but also of its “wind belt.” Nothing about the Pampa plant suggests a high-tech energy revolution. It’s a forlorn dirt-and-concrete yard containing a half dozen or so long, narrow industrial buildings with corrugated-metal roofs. Keystone is installing a first-of-its-kind machine there to start turning out spiral-structured wind-turbine towers later this year. The factory, which had about 85 workers before it closed last year, now has about 15, is expected to have 70 by September, and, if sales go well, could have 200 by the middle of next year.

Overseeing the Keystone gambit for NOV is Narayanan Radhakrishnan, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker. When Radhakrishnan decided to leave Goldman’s Houston office in 2019, it was for a job at an oil-field-services firm rather than with an oil producer because of his analysis of the industry’s existential challenge. “The energy transition is probably more attainable” for firms whose business is making energy machinery than for those whose money comes from selling black gold, he argued in a February Zoom call from his house. NOV’s “core competency is not about the end product; it’s about building big, complicated things that work in harsh environments.” So it’s easier for NOV to shift focus than it is for an oil producer, whose “asset is what’s underground.”

Bringing NOV’s experience in mass-producing mobile oil rigs to bear on Keystone’s spiral-wind-tower machine could, Radhakrishnan hopes, open up large areas of the U.S. and the world as profitable wind-power markets. Typically wind-turbine towers are trucked long distances from the factories where they are built to the sites where they’re installed. Sometimes this requires circuitous routes to avoid barriers such as highway overpasses under which the towers, strapped to truck beds, won’t fit. Building towers instead on mobile assembly lines temporarily erected near the installation sites should, NOV is wagering, allow for the height of the towers to be doubled—to as tall as six hundred feet, or 55 stories. Because wind speed increases with altitude, and longer wind-turbine blades crank out more juice, taller towers could mint more money. Eventually, the construction of wind-turbine towers  might move offshore—literally, out onto the ocean.

A worker on the panel-line portion of the Keppel AmFELS assembly line working on a sub-block of the Charybdis.
A worker examines a portion of the Charybdis.Photograph by Ben Lowy

The sea is a place NOV knows well. In 2002, as interest in the then-new notion of offshore wind power was rising in Europe, GustoMSC, the Dutch shipbuilding firm that NOV later would buy, inked a contract to supply jack-up systems for the world’s first ship designed specifically for wind-turbine installation, the Mayflower Resolution. That barge could install turbines only in depths of 115 feet or less. Since then, Gusto has designed some 35 wind-turbine-installation vessels, five of them in the past two years. Its more recent ships, including the one under construction in Brownsville, are designed for much deeper water—typically 165 feet or more.

NOV has adapted two oil-rig technologies in particular for wind-turbine installation. One is the jack-up system, whose legs dig into the seafloor and raise the vessel as much as 150 feet above the water’s surface. The goal is to ensure that its cranes can reach high enough to install a wind turbine’s tower and blades. An oil rig typically has three jack-up legs, but a wind-turbine vessel needs four to handle the stresses of moving heavy equipment around so high in the air. Whereas an oil rig stays put over a single well for months, a wind-turbine vessel moves from site to site, typically jacking itself up and down each day.

Another NOV adaptation from oil to wind is a telescoping, five-hundred-foot-long version of its conventional rig-mounted crane. NOV designed it to be able to push wind-turbine parts ever higher into the sky. A model of that newfangled crane was sitting in Keppel’s office in the Dutch city of Schiedam when, in January 2020, about forty NOV executives from around the world flew in for a two-day workshop on the company’s renewable-energy strategy. Ten “focus areas” emerged: three in wind, plus others in solar, geothermal, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, energy storage, deep-sea mining, and biogas. 

I asked one of the executives who was at the Schiedam meeting—Frode Jensen, the senior vice president in charge of NOV’s sales and its rig business—about that last one, a technology that involves producing a gas that can be burned to produce electricity. The source of that especially natural gas? Jensen broke into a chuckle. “How should I put it?” he wondered aloud, in his Norwegian accent. “Cow shit.” NOV conducts research on biogas, and on other technologies, at a farm it converted into a corporate research-and-development center in Navasota, a town between Houston and College Station that’s known as “the Blues Capital of Texas.” Do Jensen’s biogas-brewing colleagues think NOV can make real money from it? “That,” he deadpanned, with a hint of skepticism borne of his quarter-century career in oil, “is what they think.”

Since that session in Schiedam nearly a year and a half ago, Jensen has shifted much of his time to wind. He’s directing NOV’s push into the next frontier of offshore wind power: massive turbines positioned so far from a coastline, and thus in waters so deep, that they float. Rather than being bolted into the seafloor, they’re tethered at the bottom of the ocean, often by a collection of cables. The motive for incurring the expense and engineering challenge of building so far out at sea is twofold: to avert not-in-my-backyard opposition from coastal residents who don’t want their views spoiled by wind turbines, and to tap the wide-open ocean’s particularly high wind speeds. 

The ship will be called the Charybdis, after a sea monster of Greek mythology. An apt moniker, given the rough economic seas facing the energy business.

Some of the world’s largest multinational oil companies are spending huge sums to buy their way to the front of the pack in this rapidly intensifying floating-wind-turbine stampede. For example, in February, BP and German power producer EnBW jointly blew other bidders out of the water to snag the rights to set up “fields” of floating wind turbines in the Irish Sea, off Great Britain. Outbidding Shell and other oil giants, BP and EnBW agreed to pay $1.37 billion apiece for the development rights. Given that many of the world’s oil producers are its customers, NOV hopes to sell them much of the machinery they’ll use for their far-offshore wind forays.

Tacking to wind energy is likewise transforming Keppel’s Brownsville yard. Its 1,500 workers—roughly half as many as it employed at the height of the oil boom in 2008—are building two container ships and a dredger in addition to the wind-turbine-installation vessel. About 150 workers are assigned to the wind-turbine ship, though that number is likely to rise to as many as 800 when construction gets into full swing next year. The yard’s total workforce could increase to about 1,800, depending on how robust the entirety of its business remains.

The initial, brute steps in building the wind-turbine-installation vessel for Dominion closely resemble those Keppel has long used to build oil rigs. Hulking steel sheets are fed into a machine called a Wheelabrator, which blasts them of corrosion. Then the pieces are cut, beveled and shaped, and welded into chunks of the ship called “sub blocks.” Those are welded into blocks; then the blocks are welded into the vessel. After it’s smoothed and painted—an operation that plays out in buildings called “blast houses,” some of them three stories tall—the ship is fitted with its machinery and its living quarters.

But there are significant differences between building an oil rig and a wind vessel. As they build the Dominion ship—construction began last October and is scheduled to finish in 2023—Keppel’s Brownsville workers are trying to master them. Perhaps the thorniest of the difficulties involved is that a wind vessel, unlike an oil rig, requires vast open space on its deck to store the towers and blades it will install. That forces the engineers to position the vessel’s wiring, piping, and assorted interior machinery so that anything that pokes up through the deck, such as a vent, is relegated to the deck’s outer edge. Figuring out how to do that is akin to solving a puzzle, a task that in Brownsville falls to Bernardino Salinas, the yard’s 38-year-old engineering manager. 

Salinas was born in Rio Bravo, Mexico, on the Texas border, and has worked at Keppel’s Brownsville yard ever since graduating from Texas A&M University at Kingsville in 2005 with a master’s degree in industrial engineering. Each afternoon, as Salinas pores over his electronic blueprint and decides where to put the next puzzle piece, he chats by video with a counterpart at a Keppel yard in Singapore that has already built a wind-turbine-installation ship. On one February afternoon in Brownsville—the morning of the next day in Singapore—the pair discussed how to route pipes for the bilge and ballast systems, which move water around the vessel. On another, they brainstormed the arrangement of the cooling ducts for the main engine.

The Brownsville ship will be called the Charybdis. That sea monster of Greek mythology lived under a rock and roiled the waters on one side of a narrow strait while, on the other side, another creature named Scylla snatched any sailors who passed too close. Scylla and Charybdis forced ships to choose their routes carefully. Given the rough economic seas in which Keppel and the energy business find themselves, it seems an apt moniker.

One of the major sections of the Charybdis, known as a “block,” under construction in an outdoor part of the Keppel AmFELS yard.
Sub blocks are welded into larger sections of the Charybdis known as “blocks,” such as this one under construction outdoors at the Keppel AmFELS shipyard.Photograph by Ben Lowy

One oil rig still stands in the Brownsville yard. Brian Garza, an amiable 26-year-old Keppel employee, pointed it out to me during a two-hour tour via Zoom, toting his phone around on a gray February afternoon. In yet another sign of the oil industry’s woes, London-based Valaris, the world’s largest oil-rig owner by fleet size, went bankrupt last year and sold the rig for the bargain-basement price of $3.5 million to an entity affiliated with SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, the billionaire who late last year made headlines by declaring he was moving from California to Texas. Musk’s other creations include Tesla, the electric-car maker that, by eating into oil demand, is contributing to the Texas petroleum industry’s ulcers. Garza told me SpaceX renamed the rig the Deimos, after one of the two moons of Mars. Musk has hinted that SpaceX will eventually ferry earthlings to the Red Planet on rockets launched from offshore pads.

As he walked, Garza came upon a patch of the Keppel yard given over to massive swing-set-shaped gantry cranes, each 48 feet tall. They assemble the girderlike jack-up legs that are crucial to the functioning of offshore-energy vessels. Soon the cranes will build the legs of the Charybdis. But on the day of our tour, what sat under the cranes were scraps of steel from jack-up legs Keppel made, long ago, for an oil rig. That metal, like that market, was dark with rust.

Jeffrey Ball, for many years a Dallas-based Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, is a scholar-in-residence at Stanford University and writes about energy and the environment for such publications as Fortune and Mother Jones.

This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Sea Change.” Subscribe today.