US plan for offshore wind energy: Jumpstarting an American industry?

One challenge the American industry must tackle is lowering the cost of the technology. A single offshore wind turbine can cost tens of millions of dollars.

Ben Rosen/Staff
US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell looks at 180-foot-long offshore wind blade in a testing center in Boston, Massachusetts, Sept. 9, 2016. The Departments of the Interior and Energy released a strategic plan Friday to develop the American offshore wind industry.

In the previous decade, the United States floundered in the race for offshore wind farms. As Europe continued to build its industry, the US was slowed by limited government financial support, lower energy prices, and expensive technology.

Today, the US is committed to shifting course. The Departments of Energy and the Interior released Friday a strategic plan to develop a national offshore wind industry, which it boasts is a renewable energy that has the capacity to generate twice the country’s present electricity needs.

“Make no bones about it. We are very serious about advancing offshore wind as a major component of our clean energy future,” US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said at a news conference Friday afternoon, in a warehouse for wind technology testing, with two, 180-foot blades jutting from the wall behind him.

“[The National Offshore Wind Energy Strategy] shows our commitment in building this in a very substantial way here in the Northeast, in California, Hawaii, and the Great Lakes,” he said.

The strategic plan, as well as the completion of the country’s first offshore wind farm on Block Island, R.I., and actions by the Massachusetts and New York governors this summer, marks a political shift among different levels of government to fully embrace offshore wind. New England is phasing out its nuclear energy plants as a source of electricity. And Massachusetts lawmakers recently passed a law requiring utilities to buy as much as 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind electricity over the next decade.

But, one obstacle they must overcome is its cost: the Block Island Wind Farm, which consists of five turbines, cost $290 million to build and install, while a single turbine in Europe can cost up to $30 million, according to The New York Times. 

Lisa Linowes, executive director of Wind Action, a New Hampshire-based action group that “counters” information from the “wind energy industry and various environmental groups,” is hopeful the American offshore wind industry can take off. But, she says, the cost must come down first.

“The cost near shore is prohibitive. The cost offshore we can’t even get our arms around,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Friday.

In the National Offshore Wind Energy Strategy, a broad goal of the Department of Energy is to lower the cost of offshore wind energy through funding innovation and improved technologies so that wind energy can be a viable alternative to other sources of electricity. The Department of the Interior, meanwhile, plans to improve how it regulates the development and construction of offshore wind farms. Together, these agencies hope the series of action plans spelled out in more than 70 pages add up to an industry that supports the Department of Energy’s goal to have 20 percent of the nation’s electricity come from wind power by 2030, as spelled out in its Wind Vision. In 2015, wind energy supplied 4.7 percent of the all the electricity generated in the US, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

The 2016 strategic plan is an update to the draft the two agencies released in 2011.

In general, strong, steady wind that blows day and night makes coastal waters ideal for wind energy production.

“But building offshore turbines brings with it greater challenges than building onshore ones,” wrote David Unger for the Monitor in 2012. “Higher costs, harsh waters, concern for local ecosystems, and the desire to preserve scenic ocean views have kept the US offshore industry in relative infancy compared with onshore” and with Europe.

Europe expanded its offshore wind program over the past two decades, building an industry with an estimated worth of billions of dollars, according to The New York Times.

Until Block Island, efforts in the United States failed to launch, with the country not producing any offshore wind power currently. One failed attempt at an offshore  farm was Cape Wind off the coast of Nantucket Island. Locals have fought developer Energy Management Inc. (EMI) for years, citing the proposed 130 turbines’ impact on the environment and ecotourism industry. While EMI has received approval for the project, it has lost much of its funding.  

Block Island has been a different story. On a global scale the project is small: It has just five turbines (whereas in Europe offshore wind farms have as many as 130). But Block Island – completed in August, and set to connect to the electric grid before the end of the year – was one of several watershed moments in American offshore wind energy, says Claire Douglass, campaign director for climate energy at Oceana, an ocean conservation organization that supports offshore wind.

“When people said it can’t be done, there can be no offshore wind in the country, we now have steel in the water," Ms. Douglass tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "The next step is industrial development of offshore wind. The Atlantic Seaboard is ready for it.”

Abigail Hopper, director of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, tells the Monitor the agency has also learned from the mistakes of proposals like Cape Wind. In an interview at the testing warehouse, she says the federal government realizes it must craft a regulatory program that efficiently receives the input of all stakeholders, from residents, to developers, to fisherman, to local governments. 

Secretary Moniz says streamlining the permitting process will also lower the price of offshore wind development. In an interview with the Monitor after the news conference, he acknowledged the country is far behind Europe. But he offered an analogy of another renewable energy industry.

“Not long ago [rooftop solar] was $10 per watt. Today, it’s a bit below $4 per watt,” he says. "Out of those savings, $2 to $3 is technology. The rest is soft costs." 

But, he adds, the offshore wind industry still has a long way to go, and a lot to learn. 

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify Claire Douglass's comments. 

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