Offshore Wind: Gearing Up for Liftoff

Offshore wind took a major leap forward in 2019, with seven states setting goals to collectively procure nearly 27 GW of offshore wind by 2035. Once built, these wind projects will produce enough elecity to power 20 million homes while providing thousands of well-paying jobs.
Credit: Jessica Russo, NRDC

Imagine if there were a source of clean, renewable electricity that could fight climate change, has been used in countries around the world for almost three decades and now produces enough electricity to power tens of millions of homes. Then imagine that this source was growing faster than any other form of electricity except for solar power, and that states along the Eastern seaboard had estimated that this source could create tens of thousands of jobs. Finally, imagine if this source of electricity just happened to be available right next to our largest population centers, eliminating the need to build long transmission lines.

Well, you don’t have to imagine. This miraculous source of electricity does exist – it’s offshore wind. Given the enormous potential, surely the United States must be leading the way, right? Unfortunately, no. We’re barely on the map, but if you close your eyes and imagine all the pieces that are falling into place, you can almost feel the ocean wind on your face. That’s how close we are to launching the offshore wind industry.

Offshore Wind Origins

The first commercial offshore wind farm went up in Europe in 1991, almost 30 years ago. From 2010 to 2018, the global offshore wind market has been growing at nearly 30% per year. According to the International Energy Administration, as of mid-2019, there were over 5,500 turbines producing electricity for 17 countries around the world. Collectively, they provide up to 23 gigawatts (GW) of electricity over the course of a year, enough to power 17 million homes.

Offshore Wind in the U.S.

In 2016, the first offshore wind farm came online in the U.S. off the coast of Rhode Island, consisting of just five 6-megawatt (MW) turbines. Since then, states from Maine to Virginia have begun to recognize offshore wind’s clean energy and economic potential. As of the end of 2019, seven states have set goals to collectively procure nearly 27 GW of offshore wind by 2035. Once built, it will be enough to power 20 million homes.


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Creating Jobs and Protecting Marine Life

In addition to the clean energy produced, there could also be between 50,000 and 120,000 jobs created. A 2017 study co-authored by New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the Clean Energy States Alliance found that developing 8 GW of offshore wind in the region by 2030 could create between 16,000 and 36,000 full-time jobs. States have now committed to four and a half times as much offshore wind.

And the potential for job creation is only going up. Currently, most offshore wind turbines are put on top of tall metal piles that are hammered into the ocean floor. Not only is the hammering a threat to marine wildlife, but the piles are fabricated overseas. But as we wrote in a blog last July, New York has awarded a contract to Equinor to build 816 MW of wind off the southern coast of Long Island. Equinor’s turbines will be on piles held up by huge cement bases. Those foundations will be made in New York.

By simply avoiding the need for pile driving, these foundations are also inherently safer for wildlife, including the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. There are only about 400 of these majestic creatures left in the world, and the noise of pile driving can damage their hearing and drive them away from important feeding and breeding grounds.

NRDC, working with the National Wildlife Foundation and the Conservation Law Foundation, entered into an agreement with another offshore wind developer, Vineyard Wind, around a set of practices that reduces the noise from pile driving and aims to minimize the potential exposure by limiting when pile driving can occur to the times of year when the whales are least likely to be present.

But avoiding the noise altogether and creating more local jobs certainly makes the so-called “quiet foundations” something worth encouraging.

A Look Ahead – 2020

2020 will be a year of more progress, and while we won’t see construction start on the first utility-scale offshore wind project in U.S. waters, we should see many of these projects moving forward. The Vineyard Wind project was on the verge of receiving final approval over this past summer, but at the last minute the Secretary of the Interior delayed the approval and required a supplemental analysis of cumulative impacts. While some have seen a silver lining to the delay in that it will likely reduce the risk of litigation in the future, others see the long arm of the oil and gas industry. Regardless, the environmental impact statement should be finalized by next summer and then we’ll see if the Trump Administration really believes in a so-called ‘all-of-the-above energy strategy’ that includes offshore wind.

In any case, New York is on track to sign another round of contracts next year, and Virginia utility Dominion is expected to complete a small 12 MW offshore wind demonstration project as a first step toward a significantly larger 2,600 MW project that is scheduled to come online in 2026. These are only the most recent pieces of the launch pad that continues to come together at a breakneck pace. One recent study estimates that the offshore wind industry will grow to a $70 billion industry in the U.S. by 2030. We’re in the final count down.