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Offshore Wind Takes Off at Last. States Have Been Counting on It.

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Offshore Wind Takes Off at Last. States Have Been Counting on It.
Block Island, Rhode Island, Wind Farm
The Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island is the first commercial offshore wind project in U.S. waters. The industry is poised to grow rapidly as state and federal officials plan big investments.
Sean D. Elliot The Day via The Associated Press

The United States currently produces almost no electricity from wind farms in ocean waters. That’s about to change—fast.

State leaders have spent years laying the groundwork: requiring their utilities to purchase set amounts of offshore power by certain dates, investing in ports and transmission infrastructure and setting up workforce training programs. 

As a quickly growing list of projects enters the permitting and construction phases, many states are betting on offshore wind to be a crucial source of renewable power—and an economic driver that will create thousands of manufacturing and maritime jobs.

“There’s been an extraordinary ramp-up in activity,” said New Hampshire state Sen. David Watters, a Democrat. “The industry is really maturing, the cost is coming down dramatically and states are figuring out the policies they want to support to encourage the industry.”

Watters is sponsoring bills that would increase New Hampshire’s role in planning offshore wind development—with the intent of protecting fisheries and the environment—and likely steer more state power purchases toward offshore wind.

The Biden administration has set a goal of reaching 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030, enough to power more than 10 million homes. Eight East Coast states have individually set goals or mandates that total 39 gigawatts of capacity by 2040.

While the offshore wind projects in various stages of development already represent more than 35 gigawatts of production, those projects may take many years to complete. The Biden administration has said the country can reach 110 gigawatts of offshore wind production by 2050.

The vast majority of offshore wind projects are located in federal waters overseen by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is part of the Department of the Interior. But state policies around electricity purchases and carbon emissions have played a major role in driving the industry.

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“We are seeing a lot of movement,” said Walt Musial, principal engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a leading offshore wind expert. “The development of these projects takes a long time, but hard policies coming from the states have enabled these projects to happen.”

While the East Coast will see the nation’s first utility-scale offshore wind farm next year, Pacific states are further behind, because the steeper shoreline requires newly emerging technology. Experts also see future potential in the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico and Hawaii.

Many challenges remain. Many seaports still lack the capacity to handle giant towers and turbines. Some areas will need significant upgrades to their grids to bring electricity onshore. And it will take time to build up domestic manufacturing and the sizable workforce required for such projects. 

“We’re seeing state legislatures trying to tackle the pieces that need to be in place to capitalize on what the federal government is pushing forward,” said Ava Ibanez, project manager for ocean policy with the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, a collaborative forum for state lawmakers. “If there's not a focus on every part of the puzzle, it's not going to come together.”

States also will have to evaluate whether wind farms harm marine life or commercial fishing, and how such conflicts should be resolved.

‘No Other Choice’

As states transition away from gas-powered cars and furnaces, they expect their need for electricity to increase. Many have committed to providing that electricity from renewable sources. Smaller states, such as those in New England, have limited space to site solar projects and onshore wind, making their access to the ocean a crucial part of their transition to renewables. Many state officials have said that it will be impossible to meet their clean energy goals without significant offshore wind production.

Ocean winds remain strong during evening hours, when electricity demand spikes but solar sites are offline. Offshore wind also has the potential to offset some decline in solar production during the winter months. 

“What you're really looking for is a diversity of energy supply that would both back up the solar and provide an alternative as we're dependent on these different weather-related energy sources to supply us,” Musial said. “When you put them together, they can provide a more holistic energy supply, and in a lot of places, there’s no other choice.”

As the offshore wind industry matures, many leaders are hopeful that it will become one of the cheapest sources of clean electricity, though that’s expected to vary by region. Some gas companies such as Shell have added offshore wind projects to their portfolio. Other fossil fuel interests have financed efforts to oppose such projects, teaming up with groups concerned about ocean views or commercial fishing.

East Coast State Commitments

The Biden administration has designated some new areas in federal waters as potential wind energy sites and offered leases for projects in other areas.

As projects get closer to reality, states are jostling to claim the jobs they will provide. Several governors have proposed massive offshore wind investments as part of their 2022 budget packages. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has called for $500 million in funding for ports, manufacturing and supply chain infrastructure to support offshore wind.

Doreen Harris, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, noted that most of the state’s renewable energy production is in upstate New York, far from its largest population center in New York City. Offshore production is the city’s best option to tap into clean power, she said.

“Offshore wind provides a resource that is pretty unique, because it gives us the ability to inject massive amounts of renewables into those load centers,” she said.

New York is currently committed to producing 9 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035, about 30% of the state’s electricity needs. It has five projects under contract totaling more than 4.3 gigawatts. 

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In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has called for a $750 million clean energy investment fund created from the state’s share of federal stimulus money. He also wants to eliminate strict price caps on electricity projects to allow bidders to incorporate benefits such as energy storage and economic development.

The state has committed to 5.6 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2035, and it expects to have 3.2 gigawatts under contract by the end of this year—about 25% of the state’s electric load. But state leaders say more investments are needed. 

“Without additional port infrastructure investments, you're going to see delays in projects,” said Patrick Woodcock, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. “There is a bottleneck with port infrastructure to deploy all of the projects that have been proposed.”

State Sen. Julian Cyr, a Democrat, sponsored legislation that would create environmental standards for the offshore wind industry and prioritize project bids that support local workforce development. Just offshore from Cyr’s district is the Vineyard Wind project, which began construction last year and will be the first utility-scale offshore wind farm in the country. 

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” Cyr said. “We don't want to lose out to other states.”

Late last year, officials broke ground on the New Jersey Wind Port, a facility built for the transportation, assembly and deployment of offshore wind components. The state allocated $200 million for construction of the port, a priority of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. New Jersey has committed to reaching 7.5 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035. 

State Sen. Bob Smith, the Democrat who chairs the Environment and Energy Committee, sponsored a bill that became law last year allowing state regulators to overrule local governments that seek to block offshore projects from connecting to the electric grid. Smith said concerns about aesthetics, environmental impacts and commercial fishing are “resolvable,” but local officials shouldn’t have the power to block state efforts to address climate change.

“The show must go on,” he said. “We are not stopping wind, because we need it to stop the end of the world.”

Leaders in Ocean City, which drew lawmakers’ attention for its opposition to a proposed wind project, expressed anger at the measure, OCNJ Daily reported.

“It’s government at its worst,” said council member Tom Rotondi. “We should have the ability to defend Ocean City.”

Meanwhile, leaders in Maine are pursuing a small-scale floating offshore wind project to research new technology. Because waters in the Gulf of Maine get deep quickly, fixed-bottom projects are not feasible, and the region is likely to be a proving ground for floating turbines. The University of Maine has been a leader in developing that technology. 

West Coast Catches Up

The advent of floating wind turbines has also gotten attention on the West Coast, where the fast-sloping ocean floor doesn’t allow for fixed platforms. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has proposed a $45 million investment in offshore wind infrastructure, focused on port upgrades. Newsom signed a bill last year directing the California Energy Commission to establish offshore wind planning goals for 2030 and 2045.

Over the next two years, the Biden administration will hold lease sales for offshore wind projects off the coasts of California and Oregon, the first such openings in the Pacific Ocean.

“Things are in dramatic transformation from an idea to something that really has momentum and a lot of progress in a lot of policy arenas,” said Adam Stern, executive director of Offshore Wind California, a trade group promoting the industry. “California, which has been a leader on renewables in so many areas, is having to catch up here on offshore wind.”

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Stern said industry leaders are pressing California to set a goal of 10 gigawatts by 2040, which is about 15% of the state’s electricity demand. 

In Oregon, lawmakers passed a bill last year directing the state Department of Energy to study offshore wind development. 

While Washington state has less immediate offshore wind potential than California or Oregon, it could play a role in the supply chain, especially through the Port of Seattle. 

“There’s a need for more capacity than what California itself can muster, at least on the port side of things,” said port Commissioner Ryan Calkins. “We have deep-water ports. We have a skilled workforce and shipyards that are building things on this scale already.”

Concerns

Offshore wind has some detractors. Some coastal residents fear it will change their view of the ocean, although many projects are located over the horizon.

Fishing communities in particular worry about effects on local fisheries and marine ecosystems.

“As you start to scale and go bigger and bigger, what does that mean for the ocean ecosystem and those that use that ecosystem to feed the rest of the world?” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

Last year, Maine state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Republican, sponsored a bill to prevent state agencies from approving offshore wind projects, citing erroneous statistics to question the viability of the industry, the Portland Press Herald reported.

State officials in Maine and elsewhere say they’re working carefully to make sure those concerns are understood and addressed. Last year, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, signed a bill prohibiting offshore wind development in state waters within 3 miles of shore, a move to protect commercial lobster fishing. The state remains focused on developing projects in federal waters that range from 3 to 200 miles from shore. 

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