When President Joe Biden announced a new offshore wind power plan earlier this week, much of the attention focused on the ambitious goal of building 30 gigawatts’ worth of offshore turbines along the northeastern region of the Atlantic coast to power 10 million homes by 2030. That may sound like a pipe dream, but it is doable from a technology standpoint. Left to be settled are questions about the impact on coastal communities.
Offshore wind and economic development
The new offshore wind plan illustrates how the Biden administration has embraced an approach to climate action that climate advocates have known for a generation: The clean technology of today is a powerful creator of new jobs and new economic activity.
Reducing carbon emissions is still a primary goal of the new plan. When the 30 gigawatts are fully built out, the U.S. Department of Energy expects to cut the nation’s carbon emissions by 78 million metric tons.
In addition, the end goal is to deploy a total of 110 gigawatts or more in offshore turbines by 2050. The Biden administration anticipates that work in the northeast will model best practices and supply chain efficiencies that will benefit other regions.
Entwined with the climate impact is job creation and economic development. The numbers cited by the Energy Department for the 2030 goal are impressive:
“The goal will spur $12 billion in capital investment annually, leading to the construction of up to 10 new manufacturing plants for offshore wind turbine components, new ships to install offshore wind turbines, and up to $500 million in port upgrades. Achieving the 2030 goal would support 77,000 jobs, including more than 44,000 workers employed in offshore wind and nearly 33,000 additional jobs in community supported by offshore wind activity.”
Job creator, not job killer
In past generations, new energy projects typically created new jobs while steamrolling over existing jobs and tearing the fabric of local communities – and sometimes displacing them entirely. Coal power plants, strip mines and hydropower plants are notorious examples from the 20th century, with effects that still ripple out today. More recently, new oil pipelines, mountaintop coal mining and oil and gas fracking have been the focus of attention.
Clean power is also not immune from impacts on employment. The new offshore wind power plan recognizes that U.S. coastal communities are already humming with activity that could be affected. Fishing, for example, is a leading concern. Offshore wind power’s potential impacts tourism, on national defense systems and shipping lanes also need to be addressed.
The Biden plan features a multiagency effort to work with academic institutions and local stakeholders on strategies that “align ocean renewable energy deployment and technology development with community values.”
Participating in the effort are the Energy Department’s Wind Energy Technologies Office and its Water Power Technologies Office, along with the Commerce Department’s NOAA, and the Northeast Sea Grant Consortium, which is a regional academic research initiative administered by NOAA.
As part of the consortium, MIT has been tapped to lead a $1 million funding program for projects that “catalyze proactive socio-economic and technology research for offshore renewable energy planning in the region.”
Apparently, the effort recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach to offshore wind development will not pass muster with local stakeholders. Instead, MIT emphasizes a flexible approach that opens the door for other forms of offshore energy, including hydrokinetic energy harvesting devices that leverage the motion of currents, tides and waves.
A public-private partnership to save the planet
One unique feature of the new plan is a first-of-its-kind public-private agreement that joins NOAA with the global wind power developer Ørsted, which has already taken a firm grip on wind power in the U.S. The agreement calls for partnering on data collection and technology development.
NOAA already collects a considerable amount of data related to climate change and other environmental impacts, but there are still gaps in its knowledge base. Under the agreement, Ørsted will share the data it collects when it assesses offshore sites for project development.
The data collection areas include air quality, water quality, and emissions; biological communities; meteorology; coastal and ocean currents, circulation and waves; hydrographic services and mapping; and physical oceanography.
In combination with NOAA’s public data, the collaborative effort is expected to help “plan and ensure the effective deployment, sustainable operation and maintenance, and the efficient use of weather-dependent and oceanic renewable energy technologies and infrastructure.”
More offshore wind power for the U.S.
As for why the Biden administration selected the U.S. northeast to launch its long-term offshore wind 110-gigawatt goal, that’s a good question. After all, there is offshore wind potential all along the massive U.S. coastline, and the Great Lakes also offer opportunities.
Part of the answer is technology-driven. The Pacific coast, for example, is not suitable for conventional fixed-platform offshore wind turbines. New floating wind turbine technology has emerged on the market, but project development along the Pacific coast is years away.
Another consideration is driven by bottom line and competitive factors. Those are in play along the Gulf coast, where wind resources are less than optimal. A recent study by the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory assessed offshore wind resources among the five Gulf Coast states and drew scenarios under which offshore wind could be economically viable, but there are still no projects in the pipeline.
Last, but certainly not least, is the political angle. During the Obama administration, energy policy in most of the Atlantic coast states from New Jersey on south hinged on Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures, which favored fossil energy. New Jersey and several others have since recovered their footing under new leadership, but as a group they are lagging behind.
In contrast, the northeastern Atlantic coast states from New York to Maine established an early interest in promoting the U.S. offshore wind industry. Rhode Island was first to achieve success as the host of the Block Island wind farm, which is the nation’s first, and still the only, offshore turbine array in commercial operation.
Coincidentally or not, President Biden’s new Commerce Secretary, Gina Raimondo, served as Governor of Rhode Island from 2015 to 2021. The Block Island project was already in the pipeline when Raimondo took office, and construction began during her first year. She has had a first-hand opportunity to observe the economic activity stirred by a single wind farm with just 30 megawatts in capacity.
With 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power now in sight, the potential for new jobs and new activity has grown exponentially.
Image credit: Nicholas Doherty/Unsplash