Offshore wind is poised to take off in the U.S.—but it won’t be easy

The Biden administration plans to build thousands of offshore wind turbines by 2030, a daunting task. Experts say it’s possible if everything goes as planned.

At a port on the Delaware River in southern New Jersey, construction workers are busy pouring a concrete foundation larger than a football field. By the end of the year, it will support a factory unlike anything ever built in the United States. The factory’s purpose: to turn sheets of steel from the heartland into columns that will underpin a colossal new tool in the fight against climate change.

Weighing up to five million pounds each, the 400-foot-long, 40-foot-wide “monopiles” will be heaved onto barges and ferried 15 miles offshore into the Atlantic Ocean. There, a crane on a specialized ship will stand them on end and drive them into the seafloor, creating a firm foundation for 800-foot-tall wind turbines that will produce carbon-free electricity for New Jersey.

If all goes well, the Garden State’s new monopile factory will eventually ship its supersized piles from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting a vast offshore wind buildout in U.S. waters.

“Our intention is to supply monopiles for every project in North America,” says Lee Laurendeau, the CEO of EEW American Offshore Structures, which is building the $250 million factory in Paulsboro, New Jersey.

A big new business is blowing to America’s shores, and the Paulsboro monopile factory is its first ambassador. President Joe Biden would like it to be the first of many. On March 29, his secretaries of interior, energy, and commerce announced a goal of installing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity in U.S. waters by 2030 (and 110 gigawatts by 2050). In the process, the administration hopes to generate tens of thousands of new jobs in manufacturing, installation, maintenance, and more.

Reaching that 30-gigawatt goal—enough to power 10 million U.S. homes and slash carbon emissions by 78 million metric tons a year (comparable to the annual emissions of Austria)—is a massive challenge, one that will require lightning-fast growth of an industry that has been plagued by permitting delays and fierce resistance from coastal communities and the fishing industry. Today, there are just five offshore wind turbines producing power for the U.S. electric grid, all off the coast of Rhode Island. In the next nine years, thousands more would have to be built, along with the transmission infrastructure to connect them to the grid—and before that, the factories, ports, and ships required to make and deliver the turbines.

The Biden administration’s 30-gigawatt-by-2030 goal “is possible,” says Sanjeet Sanghera, the head of wind energy at energy consultancy BloombergNEF. “But the stars have to line up in order to make it happen.”

Big promises

The potential of U.S. offshore wind resources is vast. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that there are more than 2,000 gigawatts worth of power blowing off the coasts, where winds tend to be stronger and more reliable than on land. That’s nearly double the nation’s current electricity-generating capacity.

Offshore wind is a particularly attractive power source for the northeastern U.S., where electricity demand is concentrated in large coastal cities, land for renewable energy facilities is limited, and turbines can be anchored to a shallow continental shelf that extends many miles offshore.

Yet for decades, the offshore wind industry has struggled to gain a toehold in U.S. waters. High costs, limited state and federal support, and opposition from a coalition of stakeholders—including shorefront communities that don’t want turbines spoiling their views—have been prohibitive.

Today, America’s entire offshore wind fleet consists of two small installations: the five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island wind farm in state waters off Rhode Island, which has been producing power since 2016, and a two-turbine, 12-megawatt technology demonstration facility erected in federal waters off Virginia last year. (A megawatt is one one-thousandth of a gigawatt.)

In recent years, however, many of the barriers to offshore wind development have started to come down. For one, the technology has matured in Europe, where thousands of offshore wind turbines have been installed. The larger, more powerful 12- to 14-megawatt turbines hitting the market today provide a better return on investment than the six-megawatt turbines installed at Block Island, helping drive costs down

At the same time, a number of states have adopted emissions reduction targets in recent years, spurred by extreme weather events and projections of even more severe climate impacts in the future.

Offshore wind has “become a key strategy for many northeast states that are looking to decarbonize their state electricity production,” says Doug Vine, who directs energy research and analysis at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. States from Massachusetts to Virginia have announced goals that add up to 30.5 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035, a figure that’s not too far from the Biden administration’s new target.

The DOE looked at state goals, cost trends, and construction timetables, in order “to assess what we can feasibly achieve if we’re aggressive about it,” says Kelly Speakes-Backman, the agency’s acting assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy. “And that led us to our 30-gigawatt target.”

Spinning up an industry

In order to reach that target, though, the U.S. has to get building. “There’s a lot of infrastructure that’s going to be needed,” Speakes-Backman says.

To accommodate the electricity arriving from offshore, utilities will have to add new transmission infrastructure to the grid, including coastal substations to receive the electricity and new power lines to funnel it into cities. While it will be possible to repurpose some infrastructure originally built for coal and nuclear power plants, “the interconnection points on the shore for the offshore wind areas are pretty limited,” Speakes-Backman says. “This could be a bottleneck.”

Another potential bottleneck is wind turbine components, including support structures like monopiles and steel towers, as well as nacelles, which contain the generator, and the rotor, the aerodynamically shaped housing at the front of each turbine that holds the blades. While many components will be imported from Europe initially, shipping supersized turbine pieces across oceans—the blades are hundreds of feet long and the nacelles can weigh over 600 tons—is logistically challenging and expensive. Moreover, there isn’t enough manufacturing capacity in Europe to support the offshore wind buildout the Biden administration wants to see.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm “correctly says we want to build these factories, et cetera, because we want to create lots of high-paying jobs in the U.S.,” says Willet Kempton, a professor of marine science and policy at the University of Delaware. “That's all true. But really, we've got a supply problem. We can’t build enough parts to make 30 gigawatts by 2030.”

In addition to new supply chains and electrical infrastructure, the U.S. needs giant new ports capable of receiving and assembling turbine components. It also requires specialized installation ships that jack themselves up out of the water on legs and use tall cranes to erect the skyscraper-sized turbines. As of September 2020, there were just 50 of these vessels in operation or under construction around the world.

That’s not many, and a 1920 law known as the Jones Act—which stipulates that only U.S. vessels can ferry goods between U.S. ports—makes using them in U.S. waters even more challenging. The first Jones Act-compliant turbine installation ship is currently being built in Texas to the tune of $500 million.

Federal investments are needed to jump-start an offshore wind power boom. The DOE announced it was making $3 billion in loans available to offshore wind and transmission developers and suppliers. The Department of Transportation, meanwhile, announced it would distribute $230 million in grants for port infrastructure . But according to Kempton, that’s about the cost of a single “marshalling” port for turbine components—not enough to support a buildout from Massachusetts to Virginia.

Big investments in research and development must happen for the offshore wind industry to spread from coast to coast. In the Southeast and the Gulf of Mexico, turbines may need to be re-designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. Along the West Coast, where the seafloor drops off much more rapidly, floating offshore wind turbines are required—technology that is currently in a nascent phase.

As the offshore wind industry grows, raw materials such as rare earth metals, used in the permanent magnets in generators, might become scarce. Designing these magnets to be more easily repurposed, or engineering new materials that replace rare ingredients with more common ones, could help alleviate the coming supply crunch, says Tomer Fishman, a lecturer at IDC Herzliya’s School of Sustainability in Israel.

“This is a window of opportunity to plan ahead,” he says.

Permits and pushback

The biggest near-term challenge facing the Biden administration isn’t assembly ships or raw materials, experts say: It’s accelerating the permitting process that has kept projects in regulatory limbo for years.

Wind farms in federal waters must receive permits from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM. Currently, BOEM has 17 active commercial wind leases, including 14 projects that have submitted construction and operations plans for environmental review. To date, the agency has finalized an environmental impact statement for just one—the Vineyard Wind 1 wind farm 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts—and even that project is still waiting on BOEM to make a final decision. Vineyard Wind 1 and the second project in line, the South Fork Wind Farm, have been under review at the agency since 2018.

But this years-long process is about to go to warp speed. By 2025, the Biden administration says it plans to complete review of at least 16 offshore wind farm proposals representing 19 gigawatts of power.

“That is a vast acceleration,” says Sanghera of BloombergNEF.

To reach that goal, BOEM Director Amanda Lefton says the agency will begin reviewing 11 additional projects later this year or early next year. It will also be holding a new lease sale in the New York Bight, an area of shallow water between New Jersey and Long Island that the Biden administration is prioritizing for offshore wind development given its proximity to a massive population center. The task before BOEM “is ambitious,” Lefton says. “But we believe we can get there.

But as BOEM prepares to speed things up, others are calling for the administration to slow down. On March 29, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), a trade association representing the commercial fishing industry, released a statement asserting that fishing interests were being “ignored” in the government’s “rush” to expand offshore wind.

We knew that this administration was going to be heavily supportive of offshore wind,” says RODA executive director Annie Hawkins. “What we didn't expect was in the first few months of this administration to have these huge announcements... without any commitment to addressing the fisheries concerns that have been raised from day one.”

Those concerns include loss of fishing grounds around wind farms, interference with marine navigation equipment, and potential direct impacts on the ecosystem. Offshore wind can potentially affect fisheries in numerous ways, including through noise pollution, the generation of electromagnetic fields that fish are sensitive to, and the loss of habitat around wind farms. On the other hand, wind farm supports can also act as artificial reefs that create new habitat. In U.S. waters, these impacts are not well understood.

According to Hawkins, the administration has so far failed to reach out to the fishing industry to clarify what the regulatory process will look like. “They’ve put up a huge black box around what their plans are and what they’re going to do,” she says.

Lefton says that BOEM is “absolutely committed” to working with the commercial fishing industry, as well as other stakeholders like the tourism industry, “to ensure that any potential development takes all ocean uses into account.”

“From our perspective, including all stakeholders in the renewable energy leasing process is essential,” Lefton says.

Vineyard Wind CEO Lars Pedersen says his project was redesigned to accommodate the local fishing industry by spacing the turbines farther apart and changing their orientation. “We are working under the assumption that we can co-exist,” Pedersen says. “That’s our goal.”

But whatever the offshore wind industry and the federal government’s intentions, a battle appears to be looming. Hawkins says that the New York Bight in particular  is “hugely economically valuable” to “dozens” of different fisheries. On April 13, RODA announced its members were boycotting a BOEM meeting to plan lease sales in the region, writing that the agency’s efforts to fast track development in existing and future lease areas “threaten the very survival” of the U.S. seafood industry.

Disputes around the siting of offshore wind farms are likely “the biggest hurdle” to a rapid expansion of the industry, says Vine of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. He hopes that once the first large farm goes in the water and BOEM develops more experience permitting such projects, “the path forward will be a lot more clear.”

“But I think there's going to be a lot of turbulence between now and that coming to fruition,” he says.

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