APE COD, MASS. – President-elect Joe Biden’s climate plan proposes building thousands of offshore wind turbines as a key contributor to the goal of a carbon-free U.S. energy sector by 2035.
With the states largely carrying the ball as the Trump administration stepped back from climate change and clean energy, the pressure is on for the new administration to come through on its promise.
“The actions by the states across the country have been really important and kept the U.S. moving forward in spite of a lack of leadership in Washington,” Josh Albritton, director of climate change and energy at the Nature Conservancy, said. “That change is happening … but to get to 2050 (net-zero carbon emissions nationally) we need the federal government.”
While onshore wind power is projected to see greater growth nationally over the next 30 years, offshore wind power is far more important in the populous Northeast where topography and population density mean more permitting conflicts and fewer of the large tracts needed for utility-scale wind farms.
The Atlantic Ocean – with its proximity to coastal cities, robust wind source and shallow continental shelf south of Cape Cod, which are necessary to build fixed platforms for wind turbines – is where the Northeast would see the largest growth in clean energy in the decades ahead. The hope is that after 2035, technological advances will mean floating platforms could be used to expand the offshore footprint.
“Our ability to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 requires a balanced clean energy portfolio anchored by a significant offshore wind resource,” Kathleen Theoharides, Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said. Her department released a decarbonization roadmap study last month that found it was feasible for the state to meet its net-zero energy sector goals with a minimum of 15 gigawatts of offshore power by 2050.
Although wind farms can sell their power to multiple states, the 15 gigawatts minimum would fill 70% to 100% of Massachusetts’ current demand for electricity, depending on the wind speeds, according to Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts. As states electrify transportation, housing and industrial sectors, the demand for electricity will dramatically increase.
Despite its promise and extensive planning and investment over the past 20 years, the offshore wind industry is barely out of the starting blocks. Only a small five-turbine wind farm off the Rhode Island coast has been built so far. Confusion in the regulatory and permitting process and political interference have obscured the path to a successful deployment of a utility-scale offshore wind farm. Those in the industry hope that Biden is arriving at the right time with the right plan.
Greg Cunningham, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Clean Energy and Climate Change program, is pleased to see the Biden camp linking clean energy to job creation.
The economics of clean energy is trending in the right direction with utility-scale solar and wind power prices dropping below fossil fuels when the cost of infrastructure and production are factored in. Clean energy jobs are already one of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy with over 3.3 million Americans working in clean energy jobs such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean vehicles and fuels at the end of 2019, according to the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).
The industry was enjoying steady growth gaining 1 million jobs from 2015 to 2019 thanks to a median wage 25% higher than the U.S. median wage and penetration into 99% of U.S. counties, according to ACORE. But like most industries, clean energy suffered a setback due to the pandemic with a 12% drop in employment, 429,250 workers, from February to December 2020, according to an analysis prepared for ACORE.
“For all the bluster and administrative processes, the Trump administration’s efforts to boost coal and utilities that rely on coal-fired power failed,” Cunningham said. “There is a clean energy pendulum that has … gained momentum over the past several years that I hope will make it easier for the Biden administration to add momentum to that speeding train.”
But it will require a rapid build-up of both solar and wind generation to meet climate change goals set by the Biden administration. Cunningham is encouraged the recent Georgia elections placed two Democrats in U.S. Senate seats that resulted in a slim Democratic majority, giving the party control of both Congress and the White House.
“Rather than the prospect of zero clean energy and climate legislation under a Senate led by Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the likelihood is there will be reasonably aggressive and modest pieces of legislation proposed and that the more modest ones will succeed,” Cunningham said.
Electricity production is a close second to transportation as the largest generator of greenhouse gases in the U.S. with 27% of the total emissions, according to the EPA. In his climate plan, Biden set 2035 as the year the energy sector achieves net-zero and 2050 as the year for the nation as a whole to reach net-zero for all greenhouse gas emissions.
Formidable challenges ahead
Last fall, an international network of nearly 100 researchers, public policy experts, planners, and municipal, state and federal officials, released their Zero Carbon Action Plan that concluded net-zero carbon emissions is achievable by 2050 and affordable. Ninety-five percent of the increase in renewable energy supply will come from wind and solar, they found.
For offshore energy that’s a big climb from essentially zero and time is short. The Zero Carbon report said the U.S. would have to nearly triple its current output of around 1,100 gigawatts of renewable energy to 3,000 gigawatts by 2050 to meet zero-emissions goals. According to the report, the U.S. would need to add 100 gigawatts of renewable energy power a year, on average, to reach that goal, the equivalent of adding 100 large nuclear plants or 200 large solar or wind farms every year.
The International Renewable Energy Agency’s 2019 white paper on the future of wind power also showed a steep growth curve for offshore wind over the next 30 years projecting global installed power at nearly 230 gigawatts by 2030 and 1,000 gigawatts by 2050. Asia, particularly China, would dominate with roughly six times the offshore power of North America, whose output was predicted to have 28 gigawatts by 2030 and 164 by 2050.
It would take nearly 19 wind farms the size of Vineyard Wind – which is hoping to become the first utility-scale offshore wind farm in the U.S. and would produce 800 megawatts of electricity – to meet the goal of 15 gigawatts set by Massachusetts to be developed over the next three decades.
The Biden plan also calls for research into smaller, less expensive nuclear power plants, something that some have said would be a backup if offshore wind doesn’t take off.
There has been progress. Starting in 2010, federal and state governments established offshore lease areas that appeared to have the best chance of success in terms of the strength and duration of wind with the least potential for conflict. Fifteen of these sites, from Massachusetts to Delaware, have already been leased out to wind developers by auction.
European companies with more experience and a track record of successful construction and operation of large wind farms entered the U.S. market as major investors and developers. A recent report by consultants Wood Mackenzie for the American Clean Power Association showed the U.S. supply chain for wind power projects is growing, with 50% to 70% of construction materials and equipment used for wind farms produced domestically.
Action at the state level
States have done their part. Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have requirements that power utilities now must include a percentage of electricity from renewable energy.
In 2008, Massachusetts passed legislation that set emission reduction goals of 25% of 1991 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050 (recently revised by Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature to net-zero emissions by 2050). Other legislation established a renewable portfolio standard requiring that power utility companies include electricity generated by renewable energy sources such as solar and wind in their energy supplies.
The goal was to incrementally add more renewables every year to reach 35% by 2030. But Baker recently refused to sign a bill from the state Legislature to increase that to 40% and to add another 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind power to the 3,200 megawatts that utilities are obligated to commit to by 2035.
Biden wants to build on state renewable energy portfolio standards and expand them to the remaining states by creating an Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard. Laura Smith Morton, director of the offshore wind program at the American Wind Energy Association, thinks that, with an incoming administration supporting clean energy, a coal industry in decline, and a year of record storms and wildfires creating awareness climate change is happening now, the stage is set for the offshore wind industry to take off.
“This is absolutely the moment to make the decisions to move this industry forward,” Morton said.
Twenty-nine gigawatts of power are already in the planning phase from the Mid-Atlantic to Massachusetts, she said, and could be operational within a decade.
The American Wind Energy Association would like to see Biden issue a series of executive orders in the first 100 days that set 2035 as the deadline for the country to get to 100% clean energy generation; require the federal government to purchase 35% of its electrical supply from renewable energy sources by 2025; and that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management permit a minimum of 12.5 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2025.
The key to growing the offshore wind industry, wind advocates say, is a transparent and predictable permitting process that up to this point has been grindingly slow, with a tendency to become a political football, subject to the whims of whoever is in power in Washington.
“The red tape that offshore wind faced under the Trump administration was unprecedented,” CLF’s Cunningham said.
In 2018, Vineyard Wind seemed on track to secure Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approval of the project’s environmental impact statement, start construction in 2021, and be operational by 2022. Under pressure from the fishing industry and, some allege, undue influence by the Trump administration, BOEM widened its scope to include a whole new analysis of the cumulative impacts on the fishing industry of all the wind farm proposals along the East Coast. The U.S. Coast Guard also completed another review of marine safety issues.
That delayed construction for more than a year with no firm date for BOEM approval. Last month Vineyard Wind withdrew its construction and operations plan indefinitely from consideration by BOEM. The company said it did so to redraw the plans to include turbines with higher power output.
Delay and confusion is nothing new. When Cape Wind developer Jim Gordon relinquished federal leases for 46 square miles of Nantucket Sound in 2017, it marked the end of a tortuous 16 years of regulatory, legal and political battles that blocked what would have been the nation’s first industrial-scale offshore wind farm.
A brighter future under Biden?
Morton would like to see increased staffing at BOEM and NOAA Fisheries to expedite the anticipated surge in wind farm applications. But others caution that the permitting process isn’t completely controlled by BOEM or NOAA. It involves many different agencies at the federal, state and local levels.
“When you look at Biden, his public utterances, his plan and appointees (to his Cabinet posts), they are signaling that they will make climate change and clean energy a priority,” said Ian Bowles, who was Secretary of Energy and the Environment under former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
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