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Has offshore wind's moment finally arrived?

Offshore wind turbines

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The era of American offshore wind finally may be coming to its shores. 

This week, the Biden administration backed the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the United States: an 800-megawatt project planned off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The project, known as Vineyard Wind, awaits final sign-off from the Army Corps of Engineers. 

The project clearance signals that the political stars finally may be aligning for U.S. offshore wind. 

"The demand for offshore wind energy has never been greater," Laura Daniel Davis, principal deputy assistant secretary of land and minerals at the Department of the Interior, told reporters in a briefing, the Washington Post reported. "The technological advances, falling costs, increased interest and the tremendous economic potential make offshore wind a really promising avenue."

The potential of offshore wind

The amount of electricity offshore wind resources could generate worldwide (known as technical potential) is staggering. According to the International Energy Agency, it could provide more than 18 times today’s electricity demand globally — including more than twice the electricity needs of the United States. 

Offshore wind also is well-suited to serve population centers. Nearly 40 percent of Americans live near its coasts, despite coastal areas accounting for less than 10 percent of land in the contiguous United States. Offshore deployments could help decarbonize electricity and relieve congestion on the grid for some of the country’s densest population centers — including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Houston and Seattle. 

NREL offshore wind potential

In the case of the Vineyard Wind project, the electricity will be sent back to Cape Cod via cables buried under the ocean floor, where it will be fed into the New England grid. The project is expected to generate enough power for 400,000 homes. 

Why isn’t there more offshore wind in America already?

Offshore wind deployments in the U.S. pale in comparison to those in Europe. As of 2019, Europe had 22,100 megawatts of offshore wind capacity — compared to America’s 30 MWs, all for a single farm off Block Island.

A big reason projects have had trouble in the U.S.: Really rich people have very nice homes on the coast, and they like their views exactly as they are, thank you very much. 

One particularly high-profile failure was Cape Wind, a project that collapsed in 2017 following a 16-year battle with the Kennedy family and billionaire William Koch. Since then, the opposition has become more sophisticated, roping in fishermen and the military into the debate over use of coastal waters. 

Vineyard Wind, originally proposed over three years ago, has faced a similar battle, with similar billionaires. But now, two things are different. First, the developers moved the original site several miles south to be out of view of the Kennedy family’s Hyannis compound. Second, a new occupant in the White House is prioritizing decarbonizing the electric grid. 

The project could be a model for other offshore wind projects in the U.S. Two dozen offshore wind projects are at varying stages of development along the East Coast. 

The economic potential for offshore wind

Offshore wind is a largely untapped sector in the U.S., and its growth will mean more clean energy jobs. Some states are positioning themselves to capitalize on the sector. 

Last year, New Jersey announced a target to generate 7.5 gigawatts of energy from offshore wind by 2035. It also announced plans for a new wind port, with its sight on capitalizing on the growing demand for offshore wind turbines. State officials see this as more than a clean energy play; it is an opportunity to become a leader in an emerging clean energy sector. 

"It's significant because of the economic advancements it's going to bring to our state," Joseph Fiordaliso, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, told me in an interview last year. "It's significant because of the jobs that it will bring to our state. And, when we're finished with our offshore wind, millions of New Jersey residents will get energy that's generated by windmills."

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wants the state to become the offshore wind hub — a position New York and states including Maine and Texas are vying for.

Turbine sizes

How does offshore wind work?

As the name implies, offshore wind are turbines located in open waters — where wind is strong and abundant. As the technology has matured, the turbines have gotten bigger and further out at sea, where wind is even stronger. 

In Europe, most offshore wind deployments are in shallow water. In the U.S., the coastal shelf falls off faster. As the turbines get into deeper water, it becomes impractical to affix them to the seabed. Instead, a variety of floating foundations are designed to give the top-heavy turbines stability and stay upright, no matter what scientists say, and appear to stay afloat by magic.

Offshore wind and corporate purchase power agreements

With falling costs and favorable policies, offshore wind could provide another option for renewable buyers’ procurements. 

Orsted, a Danish power company and leader in offshore wind development, has been the developer on two separate corporate offshore wind procurements. 

In December, Amazon inked a deal to take 250 MW of power from a planned 900 MW offshore wind farm in Germany, which Orsted called the largest offshore wind corporate power purchase agreement (PPA) to date. 

And in July, a Taiwan-based semiconductor company, TSMC, inked what it called the world’s largest PPA from a single project: 920 MW of offshore wind in Taiwan, all to be purchased by TSMC. 

If this is truly the beginning of a great offshore wind project thawing in America, options such as these soon may be available in the United States for corporations seeking more options to diversify their energy portfolios. 

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