Researchers who study the U.S. offshore wind industry have issued a new report that says the sector could potentially meet 90% of the nation’s electricity demand by 2050. The key is for offshore wind to be fully developed along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, as well as in the Great Lakes, all areas the report’s authors say are ripe for development.
“Offshore Wind for America,” published March 18 by the Environment America Research & Policy Center, and Frontier Group, looks at the potential for U.S. offshore wind and the role it could play in moving the U.S. to 100% renewable energy. The groups also write about the status of existing offshore wind projects, along with technological advances that will drive the sector.
“Offshore wind is a renewable energy gold mine begging to be used,” said Johanna Neumann, senior director of Environment America’s Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, in comments shared with POWER. “If we went out today and maximized its potential, offshore wind alone could provide almost double the amount of electricity used by the entire U.S. in 2019. But even if we just unlock a fraction of America’s offshore wind capacity, it would help put us on track for a future powered by 100% renewable energy. Coupled with other renewable energy sources like solar and onshore wind, offshore wind promises to throw open the gates to a cleaner, healthier future for our kids and future generations.”
East Coast Leads the Way
The report says the Atlantic region is the frontrunner in terms of its potential to generate offshore wind. The authors said that projects along the East Coast, if fully developed, by 2050 could generate four times as much electricity as the region used in 2019. The Gulf Coast is second, followed by the Pacific Coast, and then the Great Lakes in terms of their potential generation capacity.
The report’s authors were quick to point out they are looking at the potential of offshore wind, an industry that has been slow to develop in the U.S. for several reasons, including permitting challenges and pushback from federal and state lawmakers, along with advocates for the fishing industry. Publication of the report Thursday comes just more than a week after the U.S. Dept. of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency in charge of the nation’s offshore energy regulation, said it has completed the final environmental analysis for the 800-MW Vineyard Wind project, being developed as the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind installation.
Hannah Read, an associate with Environment America Research & Policy Center who co-authored the report with Bryn Huxley-Reicher of Frontier Group, told POWER the report references “technical potential [of offshore wind] rather than projected installed capacity. That’s because too few know how much potential there is. We compare it to electricity use in order to give readers a more familiar [context]. We believe that knowing just how big the offshore wind resource actually is will encourage a responsible use of that resource, which can help us decarbonize the country.”
29 States Could Support Projects
The report examines 29 states that border water that could support offshore wind development. The researchers found that Massachusetts has the potential to generate the most offshore wind power of any state, and wrote that Maine easily has the highest ratio of potential offshore wind power to its current and future electricity needs. The authors said the report assumes that by 2050, when looking at projections of power demand, U.S. industry, buildings, and transportation will each by powered by electricity rather than by fossil fuels.
“Nineteen states have the potential to produce more power from offshore wind than all the electricity they used in 2019,” said Huxley-Reicher. “And 11 states have the technical capacity to produce more electricity than they would be expected to use in 2050, even if they go all-electric. When you pair that potential with energy conservation and efficiency, you can start to imagine a world that really is fossil fuel-free.”
Read reiterated that “there are many different pathways toward a future of 100% clean energy. The purpose of the report is to show that offshore wind can play an important role, not to forecast the role it will play, which depends on a wide range of factors.”
Europe, Asia Global Leaders
The authors note that the growth of offshore wind in Europe and Asia has played a key role in the advancement of offshore wind technologies, which includes ever-larger and more-efficient turbines. Investment—and operational expertise—from the oil and gas industry also has helped the industry, as oil and gas majors have years of experience in offshore energy development, and several are investing in renewable energy as they diversify their operations. That could be of particular importance in areas with deeper waters off their coasts.
Said Read: “Offshore wind has already proven to be a tremendous success internationally, so these are not uncharted waters. America needs to follow the trend and develop renewable energy sources close to where we need the power, on our coasts where 40% of Americans live. Technology advancements, like increases in turbine size and efficiency, will help drive down costs and make deployment of offshore wind farms easier. The turbines may improve in other ways too, such as increased ability to withstand harsh weather conditions, which will open up new areas for deployment. Ultimately, as turbines improve, we’ll be able to use new and smaller spaces to produce the same amount of power.”
The U.S. currently has two operational offshore wind farms—Block Island, a 30-MW installation off Rhode Island, and the 12-MW Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project. There are dozens of projects in the development pipeline along the East Coast. Several states that border the Atlantic Ocean have set targets for offshore wind in their future energy mixes, though the report says more support—and regional collaboration—is needed to fully develop the sector.
“In terms of what is needed on a regulatory and legal level for a major build-out of offshore wind, we’re advocating for transparency at all levels, financial incentives and support, and a coordinated approach between states,” said Read. “The tri-state partnership between Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia is something we’d like to see other states engage in to ensure responsible and efficient development of offshore wind. Increased coordination between BOEM and state agencies will be also crucial in helping to streamline the permitting and leasing processes, which will help with timely development. In general, we hope to see states making bold and enforceable commitments to offshore wind as the primary means of driving forward offshore wind’s development.”
Record Investment in Europe
The European offshore wind sector attracted more than 26 billion euros ($31.7 billion) of investment last year, a record amount, according to figures released last month from WindEurope. The industry group said Europe had 2.9 GW of offshore wind capacity installed in 2020, a 20% drop compared to 2019, though WindEurope said that was in line with its pre-COVID pandemic forecast.
Europe at present has just more than 25 GW of installed offshore wind power generation capacity, with 42% of that off the coast of the UK. In the U.S., New York is targeting 9 GW of installed generation capacity by 2035. New Jersey officials have set a target of 7.5 GW by 2035, and Virginia wants to have 5.2 GW installed by 2034.
Analysts last year said they estimate offshore wind in the U.S. could generate $166 billion in new investment in the next two jobs, and support 80,000 jobs annually by 2035.
“Our findings don’t yet indicate where the funding for offshore wind projects will come from, but the report lists a variety of tools—including state offshore wind commitments and tax credits—that will create the conditions needed to spur private sector investment, just as has occurred with wind and solar around the country,” Read said.
“Whether the U.S. will continue to lag behind Europe is largely dependent on how quickly we make commitments to and start to deploy offshore wind here in the U.S.,” Read said. “By using the newest and best technology, we can leverage the huge potential resource we have and start to make offshore wind an important part of a 100% renewable energy system. European countries (and others around the world) serve as examples of the success of offshore wind, but the U.S. has unique resources and we should endeavor to make big, bold commitments of our own that focus on our energy and environmental needs.”
—Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).