Can the Government Will A Viable Offshore Wind Power Industry Into Existence?

Climate Wind Power
Can the Government Will A Viable Offshore Wind Power Industry Into Existence?

Offshore wind power ranks only just behind high-speed rail among clean tech that much of the rest of the world can capably build while the U.S. flails about helplessly. The U.K., Denmark, the Netherlands, and especially China have spent the last couple decades installing tens of thousands of megawatts of offshore turbines, a period this country largely spent trying and then failing to build some signature projects.

By last year, though, things had finally started to turn. A 12-turbine project, South Fork Wind, off of Islands Rhode and Long, began sending power to the grid. Vineyard Wind, an ostensible replacement for the doomed Kennedy family casualty Cape Wind, installed its first turbines, and is scheduled to have all 62 behemoths up and running this year (13 megawatts apiece, rising nearly 300 feet past the height of the Washington Monument, blessedly far enough from shore for that to not matter). A collection of other projects off the shores of Maryland, New Jersey, and elsewhere, are in the planning stages too.

But the same sorts of roadblocks that doomed Cape Wind have not disappeared. Astroturfed and almost entirely unfounded opposition pops up in virtually every state where projects are planned, with complaints ranging from the traditional “it will ruin our view” to potential damage to the fishing industry to, literally, “save the whales.”

Late last year, even as Vineyard Wind was making headlines with progress on the biggest offshore wind project in this country to date, Danish energy giant Ørsted announced it was canceling plans for Ocean Wind, a massive New Jersey development that would have provided power to one million homes (Vineyard Wind will power 400,000, for comparison).

The company’s CEO said at the time that “Macroeconomic factors have changed dramatically over a short period of time, with high inflation, rising interest rates, and supply chain bottlenecks impacting our long-term capital investments.” Predictably, New Jersey Republicans celebrated the failure, and a host of eulogies for a nascent industry popped up.

The waves have been largely quiet since then. Ørsted isn’t going away, still with plans to build several other large offshore farms in this country. And on Wednesday, the Biden Administration showed that they are still just plugging away at the industry, trying to push toward their goal of having 30 gigawatts installed by 2030. Even if Vineyard Wind is completed this year, the country will have just under one gigawatt installed, with just half a decade to go. A government push is definitely needed.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will hold as many as 12 offshore wind lease sales through 2028, expanding on previous plans, not just in the Atlantic shelf where development has focused so far, but also in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Pacific Coast. Four of them will take place this year.

Leasing the offshore areas for wind power development is no guarantee of spinning turbines, but it’s a start. And the sales do demonstrate the theoretical economic potential involved: one sale in a region called the New York Bight in 2022 raised more than $4 billion for the rights to build offshore wind power. This is more than has been brought in by any offshore lease sale, including those for oil and gas drilling.

The opposition is still going to be there no matter the wind power project. The fossil fuel industry and their countless dark money offshoots are too entrenched and have too solid a playbook at this point to simply let the turbines pop up, but there is a sort of flood-the-zone strategy here that might actually work. The canceled Ocean Wind is survived by around a dozen other reasonably likely projects, with estimated completion dates ranging from 2025 through the early 2030s. The lease sales, along with some boosts to the economics from provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, will likely spawn more such proposals and plans. With turbines now out there spinning, it’s unlikely that all those new options will drown.

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