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Biden's bold offshore wind energy plans face long bureaucratic road ahead

·Senior Climate Editor
·7 min read
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Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced on Wednesday that her office will identify and eventually lease much of the U.S. coastline — from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northeast, California and Oregon — for offshore wind farms by 2025.

“The Interior Department is laying out an ambitious road map as we advance the administration’s plans to confront climate change, create good-paying jobs and accelerate the nation’s transition to a cleaner energy future,” Haaland said.

Combined with previous actions under President Biden to move forward on approving offshore wind projects already proposed, the New York Times described Biden’s effort as “the most forceful push ever by [the] federal government to promote offshore wind development.”

But before the United States can actually replace all of its coal- and gas-fired power plants, a few things will have to happen. And even if the decade-long, multi-step process of developing the offshore leases plays out unimpeded, Biden’s offshore wind plans will account for a modest share of the nation’s ravenous appetite for electricity.

Joe Biden and Deb Haaland
President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the White House last week. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Earlier this year, Biden committed to generating 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, which is enough to power 10 million American homes. Experts and industry leaders say that the new offshore wind leasing commitment could enable a larger market transformation that will ultimately bring the U.S. to Biden’s goal of relying only on clean sources of power by 2050, but it depends on what happens next. Wind energy boosters hope that the new leasing opportunities create a robust U.S. offshore wind industry capable of delivering a lot more power by mid-century.

The leasing opportunities “are more significant in their ability to really lay the roadwork for building out this industry,” said Nathanael Greene, senior renewable energy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “By itself, 30 gigawatts is not enough. We need more out of the offshore wind industry if we're going to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis. The way we do it is through these kinds of first efforts.”

Where that effort goes from here is “a very elaborate process, a very collaborative stakeholder engagement process to get these projects built,” according to Evan Vaughan, deputy director of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition Action, an association of renewable energy companies in one of the regions covered by the Biden administration’s announcement.

Wind turbines
Wind turbines off the coast of southern England. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Past efforts to build offshore wind turbines have sometimes come into conflict with local residents who raise aesthetic objections and businesses who worry about negative effects such as damage to fisheries. So the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM), which is part of the Department of Interior, first determines what areas are going to be leased through meetings and gathering public comments.

“Fishermen, coastal communities, marine commerce vessels, Coast Guard, Department of Defense, offshore wind developers and state governments all have a role to play in these task forces,” Vaughan explained. “BOEM winnows down the potential areas based on those conflicts, like really hot fishing spots, for example.”

Leasing rights are then auctioned in the chosen locations. Haaland’s intention is to complete that phase by 2025.

“And then, it’s not even done yet,” Vaughan said. The winning developers have to submit a “construction and operations plan,” through federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act. “That’s a whole other round of public comment and feedback,” Vaughan said.

Before wind farm developers can actually start building, there are also state government permits, and multiple opportunities for anyone opposed to bring a lawsuit. One project off the coast of Massachusetts that received approval earlier this year is now being sued by neighbors who say it will harm whales, a coalition of fishing industry groups and — in what would seem like a joke about hypocritical rich environmentalists if it weren’t true — a solar company executive who has previously opposed offshore wind farms in the area because they would obstruct his home’s ocean view.

For the areas just opened to offshore wind development, Vaughan estimates it will take “in the ballpark of 10 years, from lease area prospecting to a project coming online, having steel in the water.

As one might expect, the installation and maintenance of wind turbines in the ocean is more expensive than on land. Whereas wind is the cheapest way to add energy capacity in the Great Plains, offshore wind still tends to be more expensive than natural gas.

A crane
A crane hangs over the first jacket installed to support a turbine for a wind farm, off Block Island, R.I. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

But the big coastal population centers are far from the wind-heavy heartland, and many coastal states have committed to cleaning up their own energy portfolios. In fact, there are enough existing state commitments to buy offshore wind power to exceed Biden’s offshore wind energy production goals, at least by 2035. And few people, especially in liberal coastal areas, want to live above a natural gas pipeline. So offshore wind is competitive in coastal markets and prices have dropped steeply in the last couple years.

Currently, some of the key components of offshore wind turbines — including the 59-foot-wide “monopiles” that are driven into the ocean floor — are only manufactured in Europe. If they could be built domestically, without needing to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, for example, it could make the construction process faster, cheaper and more economically rewarding for the U.S.

All of this assumes that former President Donald Trump, whose obsessive hatred of wind power stems from his distaste for turbines as seen from his golf course in Scotland, doesn’t return to office in 2025 and throw a wrench in the process. (Trump has falsely claimed that windmills cause cancer and cut nearby home values by three-quarters.)

Industry advocates express optimism that even Republican administrations will support offshore wind development in the future, though. “States have been supportive on a bipartisan basis,” said Vaughan, pointing to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, both Republicans who favor offshore wind energy production.

The domestic economic potential of offshore wind is hard to deny. A report released Tuesday from the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment estimates that $109 billion will be invested in the U.S. offshore wind industry by 2030 if Biden’s offshore wind goals are met.

“What economic stimulus is generated when we build over 2,000 turbines? Really, the key there is it’s not necessarily in any state, or even necessarily in the United States at this point,” said Kris Ohleth, executive director of the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind. “What we’re trying to stress is that the time is urgently now: In order to bring those 109 billion dollars now to the U.S. and to our states, we need to act with policies that are conducive to that type of movement, because right now the supply chain primarily is still in Europe.”

Trump may not like how offshore wind turbines look, but he will be hard pressed to argue with the economic upside for U.S. businesses. The problem for Biden, however, is that the bureaucratic process could drag on for years.

“It starts with federal research and consultation, with having the lease auctions, environmental impact analysis, community outreach and building up the supply chain,” Greene, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “There’s all of these pieces, and we need to get the industry going as fast as it can.”


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