Five wind turbines spin in state waters off the coast Rhode Island. They’re the entirety of the Block Island Wind Farm, the United States’ only commercial-scale offshore wind facility currently in service, with an installed capacity of just 30 megawatts.
Although the Block Island project was completed in 2016, it remains a monument of possibility. And it’s one that’s about to be realized.
Although there are no new commercial-scale offshore renewable energy projects, they will not be the first to break water in the United States. Despite this, the industry is poised to have a huge year. Experts agree that we need it urgently.
“If we’re thinking about powering the nation in line with global climate science assessments, we need serious investment in renewable energy and serious deployment,” says John Rogers, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And that includes large-scale offshore wind.”
Coastal states account for 80% of U.S. electricity demand and the federal government has estimated that offshore wind has the technical potential to supply more than double the country’s demand.
In the next decade our existing five turbines could be joined by 2,000 more — a fleet of projects capable of generating 22 gigawatts of energy.
These projects would be the results of years of effort, efforts that experts believe could begin to pay off this coming year. The East Coast states have set ambitious targets for offshore wind procurement. Technological advances have made costs more competitive, and European companies have brought their expertise to the States. It is likely that the White House will soon look a lot greener.
Europe already has 22 gigawatts in installed capacity. The European Union hopes that it will increase that number. 25-fold in the next three decades. Offshore wind’s slow start in the United States has much to do with a climate of regulatory uncertainty and the slow pace of federal permitting — the domain of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). But there are signs that’s changing, too.
“This year I think we will break the logjam on project approvals,” says Jeremy Firestone, the director of the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware. “We might consider that to be the beginning of pretty large and steep buildup.”
Still, it’s not all smooth sailing ahead.
There are already federal waters along the Atlantic coast. 15 active leasesFor offshore wind projects. Developers for 10 of the projects that have submitted construction plans and operations plans for the federal permitting and environmental review process.
But the fate of the project that had been at the front of the line — Vineyard Wind — could influence the rest.
Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables partnered to build the 800-megawatt project. It was expected to be the first utility scale wind development in federal waters. If approved, it would be built 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and could generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes.
Vineyard Wind had initially expected that BOEM would make a federal permit decision in August 2019. However, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt unexpectedly announced that his agency would require a supplementary study to examine the cumulative effects of all the permits. Other Offshore wind projects are planned in Northeastern and mid-Atlantic waterways.
After concerns were raised by the commercial fishing sector that the turbines could interfere with their operations, the move was made.
The decision also sparked worry among some that it was an intentional delay from President Trump, who’s been outspoken about his dislike of wind energyTurbines can cause cancer, falsely.
“I think it’s important to look closely at projects — and at suites of projects — but that process would have been easier to take if it had been a little bit more predictable and if there was less suspicion that some things were be done just to throw monkey wrenches in the progress of particular projects,” says Rogers.
The supplement to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which was published in June 2020, was followed by the final EIS expected in December. The decision was then delayed again. This time until January 15 — just five days before Trump leaves office.
Vineyard Wind responded by adding its speed bump to the process.
The developers announced at December’s beginning that they were putting the project on pause and would temporarily revoke the construction and operation plan to allow them to use the most current technology. Replacing the 12-megawatt GE Haliade-XA new 13 megawatt turbine would make it possible to reduce the number of turbines in the project’s 84 to 62. It would also produce the same amount power.
Experts say that even though the footprint and price tag are smaller, there are still benefits. speculatedVineyard Wind believed that the decision was political and wanted to delay a decision on the project until the Biden administration took over.
But Trump’s Interior Department responded by declaring that the Vineyard Wind application was being terminatedIt would be necessary for its developers to restart the federal permit application process.
It’s not clear what that means for the project’s timeline, or the other developments in the permitting process. Years of scientific inquiry and project planning have already been completed, so in theory, restarting the process wouldn’t be starting from square one.
“BOEM already knows a lot and they will still know a lot come Jan. 21,” says Rogers. “One could imagine that they should remember what they know and, assuming that the science is solid, they could proceed quickly.”
Vineyard Wind could get the go-ahead from BOEM if it is successful. The cumulative environmental impact statement will be used to speed up the process for other projects.
“And that will give some needed confidence to the industry and their investors that these projects are going to move forward,” says Firestone.
It’s also likely that another project will leapfrog Vineyard Wind. A 132-megawatt project in New York by Ørsted and Eversource Energy is now next in the queue.
The federal approval process is paramount, but we wouldn’t be standing on this precipice without a few other factors, too. One of the most significant is the push by the state governments for offshore wind procurement to be included in the mix of clean-energy solutions being used.
From North Carolina to Maine, states have used the legislative and regulatory process to request upwards of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035. Rogers predicts that offshore wind along the eastern seaboard “is going to be the dominant piece of the expected power mix as we look to fully decarbonize.”
Virginia is on track to procure 5,200 megawatts in 2034. In 2020 Dominion Energy built a two-turbine pilot project off the state’s coast. Following successful reliability testing, the company has just submitted plans for its full 2,640-megawatt project — the largest thus far in the pipeline.
And while East coast states are leading the charge, there’s offshore wind potential in other coastal waters, too.
The Gulf Coast, which is home to the oil-and-gas industry, is now ready for wind development. In November, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards asked BOEM to create a task force to coordinate leasing within federal waters in the Gulf.
California is currently studying where offshore wind power can be best placed on the West Coast. Because of the depth of the waters, wind developments will likely be floating arrays — a technology that’s been used in Europe and soon in Maine.
Even lakes are in play. In the Midwest, Icebreaker Wind is nearing approval for a plan to construct North America’s first freshwaterOffshore wind development at Lake Erie
Offshore wind is just like the rest of clean energy, with technology improving at an incredible rate and costs falling. The most notable difference is in the size of the turbines, which has gotten larger and more efficient.
The blades are now about the same length as a football field and towers can reach 400 feet. Block Island’s six-megawatt turbines are being upgraded to 13 megawatt turbines for future projects. Operating at full power, a single 13-megawatt turbine could supply a whole household’s daily electricity needs in seven secondsRogers calculated.
These advancements mean that less structures are required to generate the same amount power in the ocean and they can be further apart. Ten years ago, turbines were supposed to be spaced at least 0.6 miles apart. Now the industry says it can make do at 1 nautical mile — which creates a bigger pathway for fishing boats, search and rescue, and other marine vessels.
How the proliferation of wind development along the Atlantic coast will affect wildlife — particularly marine mammals, like endangered North Atlantic right whales, and birds — is still being studied and best practices developed.
From a climate change perspective, the impending build out of offshore wind energy is good, says Shilo Felton, the field manager of Audubon’s Clean Energy Initiative. There are some potential dangers for birds, such as collisions with turbines or the displacement of birds from their roosting or foraging sites or migratory routes.
“We don’t really know to what degree the species that we have off the coast of the United States will experience these effects,” she says. “It could be very minimal, but we still want to know.”
The threats to marine mammals are greatest during construction, and some animals could be bothered by noise from the turbines after they’re operational, but experts say there are existing and emerging technologies that could help to avoid or minimize the impact.
“We believe that offshore wind can absolutely be developed in an environmentally responsible manner,” says Francine Kershaw, staff scientist at NRDC. “But it requires a collaborative effort between developers, agencies and other stakeholders.”
2020 was almost over. The wind industry had some wins, including the end-of-2018 COVID relief, government spending bill, and a five year extension of offshore wind tax credit credits. With the Biden-Harris administration quickly taking over, the political landscape for offshore winds development looks more certain.
“We’ll shortly leave behind an administration that has been at best ambiguous and at worst downright hostile to clean energy and maybe especially offshore wind,” says Rogers. “And there’s no question that the incoming [Biden] administration will be a whole new ballgame when it comes to the importance of addressing climate change, cleaning up the power sector and embracing clean energy.”
Offshore wind could be a boon for both the economy and administration as they try to address climate change. its backers say. According to the American Clean Power Association, the offshore wind industry could add 83,000 jobs to the U.S. economy over the next ten years.
“Continued efforts by the states to build out offshore wind supply chains, port infrastructure and local workforces will be key as the industry develops,” says Laura Morton, senior director of policy and regulatory affairs for the group.
The industry and environmental organizations have their own wishlists from the administration, but University of Delaware’s Firestone says one helpful immediate change would be a budget increase for BOEM.
“It needs to staff up greatly to handle the 30 gigawatts of presently planned offshore wind,” he says. “They need a lot more people in order to review those plans if the projects are to be built in a timely fashion.”
Rogers is optimistic that the industry will see a breakthrough year under the new administration and the years of hard work that has gone before.
“I think it could be an incredible year for offshore wind,” says Rogers. “And given the scale of the challenges we face — from an energy and an economic perspective — I think we really Not required it to be an incredible year for offshore wind.”
Is deputy editor The RevelatorShe has been a digital editor and an environmental journalist for over a decade. Her focus is on the intersections between energy, water, and climate. Her work was published by The Nation? American Prospect? High Country News? Grist? Pacific StandardAmong others. She is the editor for two books on the global crisis of water.