If President Joe Biden has his way, the U.S. is about to go all in on offshore wind power. His administration announced on Monday that it was setting a goal of getting 30 gigawatts of electricity from offshore wind farms by 2030.
Offshore wind has a long history of being right around the corner in the U.S. Heck, this very publication has written about it (more than once!), only for the boom to never quite materialize. The country currently has a whopping seven turbines spinning in the sea. Seven! At the risk of repeating history, this might finally be the moment the U.S. starts to get offshore wind right, tapping a resource that could generate enough electricity to power the entire country. And Biden’s new target—while a huge leap—is absolutely a possibility.
“Considering the program was established by Congress almost 16 years ago and there are only 12 megawatts installed in federal waters, going from essentially zero to 30 gigawatts is ambitious,” Jeremy Firestone, an offshore wind researcher at the University of Delaware, said in an email. “That said, it is also realistic, and the U.S. could do even more if there is the political will.”
The Biden target comes at a time when the appetite for wind energy appears to be ramping up. Even before he took office, the Trump administration (!) presided over a record-breaking offshore wind auction. Rep. Raul Grijalva introduced a bill last year that would codify a goal of 25 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030. A number of states, mostly in the Northeast, have set offshore wind targets. In fact, seven states alone running from Maryland to Massachusetts have set individual targets that, altogether, get us to 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2035. Given that only Rhode Island has installed any offshore wind to date, that plan felt a bit aggressive before Biden’s proclamation. But throwing the weight of the federal and state governments behind offshore wind could be the oomph needed to get turbines finally spinning in the region and elsewhere.
“The basic pieces are in place for the offshore energy transition—the regulatory regime since 2009, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has leased the lion-share of ocean area necessary for 30 gigawatts, and supportive states,” Firestone said.
The administration has said it will use a variety of measures to ensure the U.S. is on track as it plays catch up with Europe, where more than three-quarters of all offshore wind capacity has been developed to date. Among those tools are opening a new lease area with prime wind capacity, improving ports to speed construction, advancing loan programs for developers, and studying wind farms’ impact on fisheries and coastal towns. That could help assuage concerns that have arisen in response to offshore wind projects and created hurdles for them, including lawsuits filed by rich Hamptonites and blockades by Maine lobster boats. The administration is also making the case this could be a job creator, leading to an estimated 44,000 workers joining the industry this decade.
“Certainly commercial fishermen will be impacted, but if those jobs can become good-paying turbine construction or maintenance jobs, then that impact can be mitigated,” Doug Besette, an energy systems expert at Michigan State, said in an email. “Whose more knowledgeable about hard work in the Atlantic than commercial fisherman?! Besides, by 2030, climate change may already be impacting the coasts pretty severely, will people be more excited about offshore wind by then? Most likely.”
Some research points to reinvesting funds and revenue from the projects back into local communities to ensure the transition to a renewable economy is a just one, and that coastal communities have proper resources to protect against worsening storm surge and other climate change impacts already baked into the system. Even that may be a tough sell for people who have multi-generational ties to fishing or lobstering, and whose identities are bound to those industries. Research has also shown that some coastal communities, including along the Great Lakes, view offshore wind farms as essentially industrializing the wilderness. Admittedly, some of those feelings sidestep the fact that commercial fisheries already treat the oceans as a commodity rather than a wilderness, but the point remains that those communities need to be engaged from the get-go or projects could face backlash.
That may not be wholly up to the federal government but rather the wind farm developers; Firestone said, for example, that “if a local civic organization post-pandemic, returns to coffee at a local dinner the first Monday of the month, than the developers need to be there. ... If people are treated with dignity and respect such that they are engaged in a dialogue that has meaning—that they are participants in this transition—that should go a long way toward reducing conflict.”
The need for dedicated community engagement—including with Indigenous groups, which Besette said he was skeptical the administration would fully engage with given the entirety of American history, and others traditionally left out of the discussion—is also going to have to be balanced with the need to move fast to both the meet the 30-gigawatt target as well as the target of not burning the planet down. (These two goals, it should be noted, are not mutually exclusive.) The administration announced it would be “advancing critical permitting milestones” for up to 10 projects by the end of this year. Doing so would help, though the approval process still remains byzantine compared to most European countries.
“The permits are immediate roadblocks, but the administration is committed now to moving forward on a couple of the projects,” Firestone said. “What BOEM needs to do is to ramp up its staff, as there are presently insufficient staff to engage in review all of the permits.”
A key test of how fast the administration is able to go are those projects already in various stages of proposals and approvals. Earlier this month, it approved an 800 megawatt project known as Vineyard Wind that could come online by the end of 2023. Both Besette and Firestone said the fate of that project would be key to gauging if the nation could get on track to meet Biden’s target.
“The great thing about offshore wind is that once you get going, you can build large numbers of turbines pretty quickly,” Besette said. “It’s better not to focus on how much offshore wind we’ll develop in 2022 or 2023, but how many gigawatts we’ll be building annually in 2028, 2029, or 2030.”
So, okay, maybe we won’t know by the end of 2021 if the offshore wind era has fully arrived on the U.S. coasts. Nevertheless, things do appear to be on the up and up.