Courtesy of Union Of Concerned Scientists.
By John Rogers
The Biden administration has just set a goal of 30,000 megawatts of US offshore wind by 2030, and that’s got me thinking about the pieces that need to come together to make that possible. And there sure are a lot of them. The good news is that there’s positive movement with a whole lot of those pieces.
In terms of what it’ll take to get to 30,000 megawatts (MW) as fast as possible, here’s what I’m thinking about: Robust demand for those clean electrons. A solid leasing and permitting process to allow good project proposals to proceed. Solid infrastructure to get parts, people, and power where they need to be. Continued technological innovation for even greater affordability and efficiency. And an approach that does right by people from start to finish.
The Biden administration’s effort is a multi-pronged push to “jumpstart” offshore wind in the US, with the push at the federal level involving the Departments of Interior, Energy, Commerce, and Transportation, plus members of the administration’s climate team. That’s important.
But there’s also a whole lot that needs to happen at local and regional levels, and a lot that already is. Here’s how things look in a few key areas.
Demand for offshore wind: States in the lead
Surprising to say, but demand is increasingly seeming like the easy part of all this, thanks to incredible state leadership. Starting with commitments like Massachusetts’s in 2016 (1,600 MW of offshore wind by 2030), states have been outdoing each other over and over to attract offshore wind. They’re doing that for not just the megawatt-hours of clean electricity that offshore wind offers, but all the job creation, economic development, and increasingly attractive prices that come with it. (And there’s this breaking news: a new Massachusetts climate law ups that state’s offshore wind target yet again.)
The 30,000 MW in the new Biden plan are approximately what state commitments — statutory requirements, actual contracts, or both — add up to. But getting all that offshore wind installed by 2030 will require even faster progress than envisioned in some of those states.
The where and how: Offshore wind leasing and permitting
Part of getting there quickly and sensibly is making sure we have well thought-out places to put the turbines. The administration’s announcement includes a commitment to move toward identifying a new offshore wind leasing area in the waters off Long Island and New Jersey, to help in meeting the Tri-State area’s clean power needs.
Another piece is making sure that proposed projects are well designed, and avoid, minimize, and compensate for (in that order) harms. The federal government’s role in that includes conducting timely and thorough environmental reviews, and we were encouraged by the release earlier this month of the final environmental impact statement for the first large-scale US offshore wind farm, and progress in reviewing a second.
This week’s announcement includes the next steps in the environmental review of the next big offshore wind project in the queue, an expectation of starting the reviews of up to 10 more this year, and 16 completed reviews by 2025. It also mentions protecting biodiversity and “partnering with industry on data-sharing … to fill gaps in ocean science areas.”
Offshore wind infrastructure: If we build it, they will come
Part of creating a welcoming environment for offshore wind is getting the infrastructure in place, and there are lots of dimensions to that.
- Offshore wind is big. Port infrastructure investment is an important piece, since offshore wind turbines involve a lot of very large components (nacelles, blades, tower sections, foundation) that need staging room onshore. States have been preparing through investments and upgrades, as in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia.
- Big turbines need big ships. Or at least special/“purpose-built” ones, to do the hauling and installing. And a federal law, the century-old Jones Act, means we need US-built ships for that. Fortunately, progress on that is underway.
- Power needs transmission. Getting the offshore wind power where it’s going involves collecting the electricity in a central location within a wind farm and getting it to shore—no mean feat. But it also involves making sure that the land-based components of the state or regional electricity grid can handle the power across the existing grid.
There’s also the tantalizing prospect of manufacturing. US-made components may start with pieces like the foundations and cabling, but there’s a lot of value in fabricating the big components close to project sites once the scale of activity is large enough.
Here’s how the administration’s announcement addresses some of these pieces:
Meeting the 2030 target will catalyze significant supply chain benefits, including new port upgrade investments totaling more than $500 million; one to two new U.S. factories for each major windfarm component including wind turbine nacelles, blades, towers, foundations, and subsea cables; additional cumulative demand of more than 7 million tons of steel—equivalent to 4 years of output for a typical U.S. steel mill; and the construction of 4 to 6 specialized turbine installation vessels in U.S. shipyards, each representing an investment between $250 and $500 million.
Offshore wind innovation, the mother of offshore wind progress
Offshore wind turbines are already marvels of modern engineering and craftwork, and the progress in recent years has helped make the case for offshore wind even stronger. More innovation, though, can lead to even higher efficiencies, greater economies of scale, more electricity from a given number of turbines, and even lower costs.
I recently commented excitedly on a prototype 13 MW turbine, but other proposed turbines are set to eclipse even that impressive size, like these 14 MW and 15 MW ones. Offshore wind for the West Coast and the Gulf of Maine will require floating wind turbines, a whole new area for innovation.
The administration is proposing to help innovation via new awards through the National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium, a partnership of the US Department of Energy and several states’ energy agencies. President Biden’s just-announced infrastructure plan, too, includes a nod to floating offshore wind turbine technology.
People matter. Offshore wind needs to happen accordingly
There are lots of ways that equity and economic justice come into play in offshore wind, and it’s important not to let our fascination with the technology make us lose sight of that. Where projects happen matters, and the same goes for all their associated pieces, in the water and on land. The process for figuring all that out matters, too.
Offshore wind developers and policymakers have to continue to find ways to minimize conflict with existing uses of the marine environment, including commercial and recreational fishing. That will need to involve continued and meaningful engagement and coordination, and potentially design changes, and compensation.
Same with where the cables might come ashore, and what kind of on-land infrastructure happens where (like the substations and associated transmission). Communities should be valued partners in those decisions. And environmental justice should be a key criterion, so that new renewables aren’t perpetuating any of the negative aspects of old fossils.
The Biden plan includes a modest grant program for research aimed at benefitting “a diversity of stakeholders, including fishing and coastal communities” and “further[ing] understanding of the effects of offshore renewable energy on the ocean and local communities and economies as well as opportunities to optimize ocean co-use.”
This week’s announcement also talked about who should do the work of building our offshore wind-rich future, and particularly the importance of thinking about climate action as “people and jobs — good-paying, union jobs,” in the words of National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm committed the Department of Energy to … marshal[ing] every resource we have to get as many American companies, using as many sheets of American steel, employing as many American workers as possible in offshore wind energy. …
While the coasts have been the focus of offshore wind, its positive effects should be felt much more broadly, the administration suggested, with “new supply chains that stretch into America’s heartland.” It gave as an example the “10,000 tons of domestic steel that workers in Alabama and West Virginia are supplying to a Texas shipyard” for that first Jones Act-compliant installation vessel.
And a whole lot more
So that’s what I’m thinking about, ingredients-wise, for making 30,000 MW a reality over the next decade. There’s certainly more that needs to fall into place, though, and others’ must-do lists would look different. (I didn’t, for example, talk about the money dimensions, though offshore wind involves big investments.)
But for me there are two key overarching ingredients, maybe most important: ambition and vision. Thanks to this week’s announcement, we have both. The commitment to 30,000 MW — 30 gigawatts (GW) — by 2030 is huge and important in and of itself. But the plan also envisions this first stage “unlock[ing] a pathway to 110 GW by 2050” (emphasis added), which is equally crucial.
Getting all the pieces in place and offering a credible vision for the near and long term are key to making offshore wind the valued piece of our electricity mix we know it can be.