This post is a part of a series on Clean Energy Momentum
The Trump administration’s quiet embrace of offshore wind became a shout heard around the industry last week. At an offshore wind conference, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said, “We think there’s an enormous opportunity for wind because of our God-given resources off the coast. We’re pretty good at innovating. I’m pretty confident that the wind industry is going to have that kind of enthusiasm.”
Sec. Zinke stoked that enthusiasm by announcing the opening of the bidding process for the final 390,000 acres of federal waters far south of Martha’s Vineyard. Those parcels went unclaimed in a 2015 auction held in the despairing wake of the collapse of Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound, leaving many advocates wondering if offshore wind, which has become an important source of energy in northern Europe, would ever take off in the United States. The prospects came even more into question with the 2016 election of President Trump, who routinely claimed that offshore wind was too expensive.
But the dramatically dropping costs of offshore wind, which is now cheaper than nuclear power and closing in on parity with fossil fuels in Europe, have sparked an explosion of renewed interest in the US. The bidding for those once-orphaned waters off Massachusetts likely will be fierce as they have already received unsolicited bids from the German wind company PNE and the Norwegian energy giant Equinor, the former Statoil.
The Interior Department made two other significant announcements last week to further brighten offshore wind’s prospects. It announced that it was soliciting industry interest and public input on the possibility of establishing offshore wind farms in 1.7 million acres of waters off the New York Bight that curls up from New Jersey to Long Island. It also is soliciting input on an assessment of all Atlantic offshore waters for wind farm development. Zinke’s energy policy counselor, Vincent DeVito, said in a press release, “We are taking the next step to ensure a domestic offshore wind industry.”
This is the surest sign yet that an administration that has pulled out of global climate change agreements and is rolling back environmental protections at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, nonetheless does not want to miss out on the economic potential of a renewable energy industry that has revived many ailing port cities in northern Europe.
It surely must help politically that onshore wind is now a bedrock of American energy, with rock-solid bipartisan support in an oft-divided America. Rural turbines have dramatically changed the energy landscape in the Republican-dominated states of the Midwest and Great Plains, with Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas being the top wind electricity generating states and with the nation’s fastest growing occupation paying more than $50,000 a year being wind turbine service technician.
A similar bipartisan picture is rapidly developing for offshore wind along the Eastern Seaboard. Democratic and Republican governors alike are staking claims in the offshore industry, from Massachusetts’s game-changing 1,600 megawatt mandate to Clemson University in South Carolina being chosen to test the world’s most powerful turbine to date, a 9.5 megawatt machine from Mitsubishi/Vestas.
Both states happen to have Republican governors who have joined their Democratic counterparts in opposing Zinke’s proposal to also exploit the Atlantic continental shelf for oil and gas. In the same Princeton speech that he praised the possibilities of offshore wind, Zinke acknowledged that offshore fossil-fuel drilling was opposed by governors in every East Coast and West Coast state except Maine and Georgia. “If the state doesn’t want it, the state has a lot of leverage,” he said.
In contrast, offshore wind’s leverage has become almost undeniable. The last two offshore wind lease auctions in New York and North Carolina added a respective $42 million and $9 million to federal coffers. With Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey leading the way, there are now more than 8,000 megawatts of legislative mandates and pledges by current governors. That could meet the needs of between 4.5 million and 5 million homes, based on the proposals made for 800 MW farms in Massachusetts.
An 8,000 megawatt, or 8 gigawatt (GW) market could alone create between 16,700 and 36,300 jobs by 2030, depending on how much of the industry, currently centered in Europe, is enticed to come here, according to a joint report by the clean energy agencies of Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island. But the potential is much greater.
A 2016 report from the US Departments of Energy and Interior estimated that there was enough technical potential in US offshore wind to power the nation twice over. The US, despite being two and a half decades behind Europe in constructing its first offshore wind farm, a five-turbine project off Block Island, Rhode Island, is still in a position to ultimately catch up to Europe, where there are currently nearly 16 gigawatts installed, supporting 75,000 jobs. The 2016 DOE/DOI report said that a robust offshore wind industry that hits 86 GW by 2050 could generate 160,000 jobs.
One can hope that it is this picture that Sec. Zinke and the Trump administration are looking at in their support of offshore wind. Sec. Zinke continues to say that offshore wind is part of the White House’s “all-of-the-above” strategy for “American energy dominance.” Given how little interest there is for any new oil and gas drilling off the coasts of America, offshore wind is becoming the new source of energy that stands above all.
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