The US offshore wind industry has been here before. For the past 20 years or so, wind developers have been eyeballing 22 gigawatts of precious offshore wind power dangling right off the Atlantic coast, practically daring them to come and get it, only to see the wheels of bureaucracy grind to a halt, crushing dreams and scattering plans like a flock of seagulls. Only, not this time. This time, for real, the US appears ready to take its rightful place among the offshore wind leaders of the world, as the massive Vineyard Wind project lumbers past yet another milestone.
US Offshore Wind Power In The Doldrums
Seriously, what is wrong with the US? Smaller, tiny little countries like Scotland and the Netherlands have already splashed past the offshore wind turbine marker and are playing around with add-ons like floating turbines, green hydrogen, and wind-solar hybrids.
Other parts of the UK are also coming on strong. And then there’s the mighty United States, still waiting on the beach like a kid sitting out adult swim, only there is no adult swim in the ocean.
So, what gives? Some might say politics is in play. Back in 2010 the Obama administration took steps to coordinate offshore wind development among the Atlantic Coast states. Unfortunately, the showpiece Cape Wind project in Massachusetts fell afoul of a Koch family member (and a Kennedy, to boot), and met its final doom after Trump took office.
The Obama administration tried to maneuver around the opposition by pumping millions into an experimental offshore project in New Jersey through the Department of Energy, but that fell apart during former Governor Chris Christie’s administration, in which the Koch family also figured.
We bring up the Koch family because of their notorious stakeholdership in the fossil energy industry. Did you know that one of their pipelines is the scene of the biggest spill in decades? Apparently so. The spill was discovered by a couple of ATV-riding teenagers in North Carolina last summer and the full picture has only just come to light this week, so stay tuned for more on that.
Where were we? Oh right, renewable energy. Despite opposition during the Obama years, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management began mapping out wind lease areas and the US did get some “steel in the water,” in the form of the modestly scaled 5-megawatt Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island, where it seems that the political winds were more favorable.
Vineyard Wind Rises From The Ashes Of The Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium
That thing about mapping out leases is the key. Despite former President Trump’s oft-repeated slurs against wind power, his own administration set the stage for an offshore wind gold rush. BOEM continued mapping out and auctioning off lease areas all throughout the Trump years, and among them is one somewhat ironically located in the area of Cape Wind, in Massachusetts.
That would be the Vineyard Wind 1 project, which bills itself as the first commercial scale offshore wind energy project in the US. The 800-megawatt project will be located in a 160,000 expanse of ocean, 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s part of BOEM lease area OCS-501.
Also for the record, Vineyard Wind 1 is a project of the Vineyard Wind partnership, which consists of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables going halvsies. Vineyard Wind is also behind the proposed 804-megawatt Park City wind project in Connecticut.
They Who Laugh Last, Laugh Best
All appeared to be going according to plan for Vineyard Wind 1 during the Trump administration, until it did not. In 2019 BOEM applied the brakes on the permitting process, after determining that the environmental review should include an assessment of the totality of Atlantic coast offshore wind development.
Fair enough, but apparently the folks at Vineyard Wind 1 smelled a rat. They set the wheels in motion to withdraw their application in December, possibly because the final BOEM assessment was scheduled for January 15, while Trump was still in office.
The official reason given, though, is a super interesting one, and it has to do with the size of the wind turbines. Under the original Vineyard Wind 1 proposal, the wind turbines weighed in at 9.5 megawatts each (as of this writing, that’s still on the Vineyard Wind 1 website). Doing the math, that means the project would need 84 turbines for a total capacity of 800 megawatts.
The folks at Vineyard Wind said they needed to withdraw the application temporarily to assess the impact of the latest generation of bigger, stronger wind turbines on their plans. In announcing the application withdrawal, Vineyard also announced that it selected GE as its preferred wind turbine supplier, and if that rings a bell, it should. GE’s Haliade-X wind turbine initially weighed in at a whopping 12 megawatts when it debuted, and last fall GE let word slip that it was tweaking the technology up to 13 megawatts.
Doing the math all over again, at 13 megawatts the number of offshore wind turbines needed for the 800-megawatt mark falls to about 61, which could mean a lot of money saved in construction costs. Or, it could mean squeezing many more megawatts out of 84 turbines.
Either way, it looks like BOEM’s slow-walking back in 2019 turned out to be a good thing for Vineyard Wind, and other developers, too. The re-powering of older onshore wind farms is already a thing. With a new generation of more powerful wind turbines in hand, plans are being revised on the fly for new wind farms. In addition to Vineyard Wind, GE’s new 13-megawatt turbines are factoring into revised plans for the massive Dogger Bank wind farm in the UK, and the Skipjack wind farm in Maryland.
What’s Next For Vineyard Wind
As for BOEM, the Intertubes are all excited because yesterday the US Department of the Interior, of which BOEM is a part, announced that it has completed its environmental assessment of Vineyard Wind 1, in the context of cumulative offshore development on the Atlantic coast.
Speaking of laughing last, it looks like BOEM has set up the assessment to smooth the way all 17 active wind energy lease areas on the Atlantic coast. If Vineyard Wind 1 passes the test, other developers can use the same data and information to make their case, avoiding roadblocks and getting their steel in the water as quickly as possible.
That’s a big “if,” but apparently the Interior Department is anticipating no further delay.
“This represents major progress in the Biden-Harris administration’s goal to accelerate responsible development of renewable energy on public lands and waters as a key component of tackling the climate crisis and creating jobs,” they wrote in their press release announcing the final assessment.
Interior’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, Laura Daniel Davis, hammered home the point.
“The United States is poised to become a global clean energy leader,” she said. “To realize the full environmental and economic benefits of offshore wind, we must work together to ensure all potential development is advanced with robust stakeholder outreach and scientific integrity.”
On the other hand, it’s not over ’til it’s over. BOEM explains that it is still “working with the appropriate parties to finalize the Section 106 process, consistent with the National Historic Preservation Act, and to issue a record of decision whether to approve, disapprove, or approve with modifications the proposed project.”
Hold on to your hats!
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Image (screenshot): Courtesy of US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.