Skip to main content

The U.S. East Coast is ripe for offshore wind development

After years of false starts, offshore wind is poised to take off along the East Coast. Commitments by states to purchase renewable power, support from the Biden administration, and billions in new investment are all contributing to the emergence of this fledgling industry.

A view of Westermeerdijk, the largest wind park in the Netherlands.

A view of Westermeerdijk, the largest wind park in the Netherlands.

About 60 miles east of New York’s Montauk Point, a 128,000-acre expanse of the Atlantic Ocean is expected to produce enough electricity to power around 850,000 homes when it’s populated with wind turbines and connected to the onshore grid in the next few years.

Fifteen miles off Atlantic City, New Jersey, another windy swath of ocean is due to start generating enough power for some 500,000 homes when a forest of 850-foot-high turbines start turning there in 2024.

And off the Virginia coast some 200 miles to the south, a utility-led offshore wind project is scheduled to produce carbon-free power equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road when it is complete in 2026.

The fledgling U.S. offshore wind industry is finally poised to become a commercial reality off the northeast and mid-Atlantic coasts within the next five years, thanks to robust commitments to buy its power from seven coastal states, new support from the Biden administration and billions of dollars in investment by an industry that sees a huge market for electric power in Eastern states.

New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland have together committed, through legislation or executive action, to buying about 30,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore electricity by 2035 — enough to power roughly 20 million homes, according to the American Clean Power Association (ACPA), which advocates for renewable energy. Projects totaling 11,000 MW have been awarded so far.

Developers are investing in the East Coast because of its reliable supply of wind and proximity to populous markets.

Today, the East Coast offshore wind industry has only two small pilot projects, one with five turbines off Rhode Island and another with two turbines off Virginia. But after years of false starts, citizen opposition and state and federal regulatory hurdles that left it decades behind its European counterparts, the U.S. offshore wind industry is set to take off as East Coast states and the federal government step up efforts to boost production of carbon-free electricity.

"Close to 20 years ago, we started pushing the idea of offshore wind, and here we are. It’s getting closer and closer to a reality," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a long-time advocate for the industry. The current wave of developers includes Denmark’s Ørsted, which is investing in the East Coast because of its reliable supply of wind, its proximity to populous markets and its relatively shallow seabed that eases construction of turbine towers.

"There is a huge electricity demand from major cities, continuous wind speeds offshore and a shallow seabed which is ideal for installing turbines," said Gabriel Martinez, a spokesman for the company. "Those factors, combined with support from state governments, have created an attractive environment for offshore wind developers to enter the U.S. market."

Investment by companies such as Ørsted is expected to create about 38,000 direct and indirect jobs in development and construction just in the New York-New Jersey area until 2030, according to a 2020 study by Wood Mackenzie, a global consultant. An additional 5,800 jobs a year will be created in operations and maintenance between 2025 and 2055, the study said. It projected an even bigger economic boost in the future when the industry develops ocean areas off the Carolinas, the Gulf of Maine and, eventually, California.

Some turbines and other components will be made in the U.S. as the first wind farms are built, and the amount of domestically produced equipment will increase as the U.S. supply chain responds to growing demand, according to the ACPA.

Many projects are being built far enough away from shore to overcome residents’ objections that their ocean views will be spoiled.

The U.S.’s first large-scale offshore wind farm to start commercial operation likely will be Vineyard Wind, 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. There, the developers — Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables — plan to generate 800 MW, or enough electricity to power about 400,000 homes, starting in 2023.

The project is awaiting the go-ahead from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the U.S. Interior Department agency that awards ocean leases and oversees wind farm development in federal waters. Under the new leadership of Amanda Lefton, a former New York state environmental official appointed by President Joe Biden, BOEM is expected to be far more supportive of offshore wind than it was during the Trump administration, which denied or downplayed the threat of climate change and delayed approvals for Vineyard Wind. The agency is expected to give final approval for the project in the next two months, and then will consider 13 other East Coast wind farms approved by the states.

Biden, who wants to cut carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector to zero by 2035, has called for a doubling in offshore wind capacity by 2030, a target that likely will mean BOEM opening up more ocean areas for leasing.

The American Clean Power Association said the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for offshore wind will spur the industry’s development. "It is thrilling and refreshing to see how much interest the Biden administration has," said Laura Morton, the association’s senior director for offshore policy and regulatory affairs. "They are really keen on offshore wind being a linchpin in reaching their climate goals."

Developers can write off the capital cost of wind farms through a new federal investment tax credit for offshore wind that became law in December, enabling operators to make more competitive bids at power auctions. The law, passed as part of a budget reconciliation bill, is effective through 2026 but has a "Safe Harbor" provision that allows developers to use the credit after that date as long as they finish a project within 10 years.

The biggest challenge facing the industry will be providing facilities to manufacture and assemble offshore wind components.

Many upcoming projects are being built far enough away from the shore to overcome objections from some coastal residents that turbines will spoil their views. Some can’t be seen from the shore under any conditions, while others can be seen only at certain times or on clear days, wind industry advocates say.

Concerns that wind turbines may kill migrating birds have been eased by research showing that birds typically migrate closer to shore than most wind farms and higher than even the tallest turbines. Fish populations actually may increase thanks to the creation of reef-like conditions around turbine foundations, although there is lingering concern among environmentalists about whether wind farms will interfere with the migration of right whales.

Still, wind power’s ability to deliver sustainable carbon-free power to millions of people overcomes any remaining worries about the industry among environmentalists.

The states have set ambitious goals for the offshore power they will buy in coming years, guaranteeing that developers will have a strong demand for their energy.

The biggest target has been set by New York, which aims to buy 9,000 MW of offshore wind power by 2035. The state already has 1,800 MW under development in two offshore blocks, and in January selected Norway’s state-owned Equinor and its partner BP to generate about 2,500 MW in two new blocks east and south of Long Island.

Together with an upgrade of ports at Albany and Brooklyn to service the new industry, the state says the initiative will create 6,800 jobs and provide a $12 billion boost to its economy. The Albany port will manufacture turbine towers and other equipment. The South Brooklyn Marine Terminal will become a staging and assembly site for wind developers in New York and other parts of the East Coast.

'We’re kind of at a limit now; it’s hard to build bigger machines.' Then a month later somebody builds a bigger machine.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has more than doubled the state’s offshore wind goal to 7,500 MW, also by 2035. New Jersey awarded its first offshore wind contract to Ørsted to build Ocean Wind, a 1,100-megawatt project off Atlantic City due to begin transmitting power ashore in 2024. Under its new Economic Recovery Act, New Jersey is offering a tax credit to offshore wind developers or owners who invest at least $50 million in a qualified project. The state also has announced plans for a Wind Institute to provide education, research and workforce training for the industry.

After four years of setting their own climate goals without backing from the Trump administration, states such as New Jersey feel they have an ally in the White House, said Joseph Fiordaliso, president of New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities, which signed a power-purchase agreement with Ørsted for the Ocean Wind project.

"I feel that the states have been going it alone to promote clean-energy generation, and now we have a partner where there’s going to be cooperation between the feds and the states, not only in permitting but also possibly in financial incentives," Fiordaliso said in an interview.

He acknowledged that ratepayers are likely to initially pay more for electricity from offshore wind than they currently do for power from natural gas or coal-fired power plants, reflecting the costs of development. But Fiordaliso predicted the cost to consumers will come down as supply increases, as it did with the solar industry.

The cost of producing offshore wind power already has come down by about two-thirds over the last eight years, according to Willett Kempton, a University of Delaware professor. As the industry has grown, more turbine suppliers have entered the market, competition has increased and turbines have gotten much bigger and more efficient, allowing more power to be generated with less capital outlay, he said.

The cost of producing offshore wind power already has come down by about two-thirds over the last 8 years.

"The industry has got more industrialized in the North Sea in the last eight years," he said, noting that these northern European waters have at least 40 commercial-scale wind farms in operation. "Everything has gotten better, faster, and the market for offshore wind turbines has become more competitive."

When offshore East Coast wind power starts to flow, it will be fed into the regional electric grid, which will make corresponding cuts in the contributions of fossil fuel plants, allowing the grid to operate without modifications, Kempton said.

In another sign of the U.S. East Coast’s strong potential for offshore wind, these waters will be the site of the world’s first commercial deployment of GE’s Haliade-X turbines, the biggest and most powerful to be built, which stand 853 feet above the ocean’s surface and have blades 351 feet long. Each turbine will generate 12 to 14 megawatts, enough to power 16,000 homes, according to the manufacturer. At least two East Coast projects, Vineyard Wind and Ocean Wind, will be powered by the giant turbines.

This month, Danish manufacturer Vestas announced it is planning an even-bigger turbine, the V236-15.0 MW. The company said its blades will cover the largest "swept area" of any turbine, with each machine generating enough electricity to power 20,000 homes. It expects commercial production to begin in 2024.

"Some people say: ‘We’re kind of at a limit now; it’s hard to build bigger machines,’" said Kempton. "Then a month later somebody builds a bigger machine."

Despite the optimism of developers and environmentalists, the industry is still meeting resistance from some coastal residents.

As development accelerates, the biggest challenge facing the industry will be providing onshore facilities to manufacture and assemble offshore wind components, Kempton said. Existing ports along the East Coast won’t be nearly large enough to meet the anticipated demand, he argued, even after a "Wind Port" owned by the state of New Jersey on Delaware Bay is built to manufacture and marshal wind farm components; the facility is scheduled to begin construction later this year. Kempton advocated for the construction of another such port on the Delaware side of the bay.

Despite the optimism of developers and environmentalists, the industry is still meeting resistance from some coastal residents who argue that the industry’s infrastructure will spoil their coastal environment. Earlier this month, residents of the wealthy Wainscott community on Long Island sued the municipality of East Hampton, claiming town officials violated a state law on environmental review by prematurely approving a plan to bring a high-voltage cable ashore from the planned South Fork Wind project, 35 miles east of Montauk Point.

Opposition also has come from the commercial fishing industry, which has objected to the placement of wind turbines in some areas. The industry is concerned that wind farms will restrict its access to fishing grounds and that a proliferation of turbines could make it more difficult for emergency services to reach fishing vessels that get into trouble. In response, five East Coast wind companies have proposed spacing turbines one mile apart in a standard north-south and east-west configuration.

In the end, with state and federal governments committed to cutting carbon emissions and barriers to offshore wind rapidly falling, most observers agree the U.S. offshore wind industry’s prospects are finally brightening after years of stagnation.

"The price is not going to stop going down, and the pressure to cut CO2 emissions is not going to abate," Kempton said. "Biden wants to get to zero carbon dioxide emitted by the power sector by 2035. That’s a challenging goal. You can’t say that and still say we’re going to take years to get offshore wind going."

This story first appeared on:

Yale 360

More on this topic