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The Rise of Offshore Wind

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Robert Dillon's picture
Executive Director Energy Choice Coalition

Robert Dillon is a public policy advisor focused on competitive market design, energy security, natural resource management, and environmental matters. He was the Republican communications...

  • Member since 2019
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  • Nov 10, 2020

Offshore wind is making great strides as a potentially significant source of energy for America. In fact, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, offshore wind in the United States has a technical resource potential of over 2,000 gigawatts (GW). Already, over 30 offshore wind projects are in development across the country, while Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island was completed in 2016. And the University of Delaware estimates that fixed-bottom offshore turbines, either currently underway or in advanced planning stages off the East Coast, could provide 18.6 gigawatts of electricity between 2020 and 2030. This output is equivalent to that of eighteen average-sized nuclear power plants.

So how do they work? Offshore wind turbines produce electricity, then send it to coastal load centers through cables buried in the seafloor. These centers then channel and distribute the electricity to the grid depending on where it is needed. And because ships are able to transport large components without worrying about certain land-travel constraints, like tunnels, offshore turbines can be larger than their land-based counterparts and therefore produce more energy. Additionally, offshore wind is usually more productive during the day, at the peak of consumer demand, whereas most land-based turbines are more productive at night when consumer demand is lower. Notably, 80 percent of America’s electricity demand is in the coastal and Great Lakes states, and offshore wind turbines operate off the coasts of these population hubs.

 More specifically, around 60 percent of existing U.S. offshore wind turbines are located in deep waters, and this often proves difficult for construction and turbine capability. Fortunately, companies are developing floating offshore wind platforms that are much better suited to those depths, thus opening up more of the coast to wind power. The turbines, nicknamed “floaters”, are anchored by mooring lines and operate in waters deeper than 160 feet. This is significant, as 80 percent of the world’s waters that are near major population centers and suitable for offshore turbines are deep.

“While floaters are currently more expensive than wind turbines with a fixed foundation in the ocean, [Walter] Musial of [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] believes they will remove a big economic barrier in the offshore wind business because wind turbines are growing larger, and a U.S. law called the Jones Act requires very large and very expensive U.S.-owned ships to install them at sea,” explained John Fialka.

Fortunately, “floaters” can be constructed and repaired at ports and then towed out to deep water. This technology was pioneered in the United States, which stands to benefit greatly from this innovation, especially on the West Coast (California and Hawaii are already planning floating wind farms, with Washington and Oregon likely to follow).

For the offshore wind sector in general, 2020 is shaping up to be a very successful and promising year.

One reason is there is growing political support from the states. New York and New Jersey, for example, hope to achieve a combined 16.5 gigawatts by 2035, and have plans for solicitations that could result in 5 additional GW of contracted capacity by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina have announced a collaboration to develop and build offshore wind projects and to try to establish themselves as an industry hub; this project is projected to support up to 86,000 jobs and provide $25 billion in economic output by 2030. Notably, the Mid-Atlantic is the largest regional market for offshore wind in the country, and one of the largest future world markets.

Additionally, the cost of electricity from offshore wind is dropping, and the cost’s comparability to Europe’s prices is a good sign for the competitiveness of the offshore wind sector. And the leading turbine supplier in offshore wind energy, Siemens Gamesa, is considering building a factory in the United States.

Finally, the offshore wind sector has great crossover potential for workers in the oil in the gas industry:

“It represents a way to transition oil and gas workers—who have the most relevant experience in the country—into offshore wind jobs: good-paying, strong-replacement-type jobs; still in energy, still offshore,” said Jason Folsom, principal at Power and the Money, an offshore wind advisory.

It seems as though the future of offshore wind energy in the United States is bright.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 11, 2020

Fortunately, “floaters” can be constructed and repaired at ports and then towed out to deep water. 

This is such an elegant solution to the high cost of getting crews out to the deep waters, not to mention the safety issues therein. Do you know the ballpark relative figures on the cost to tow into port for repair vs. sending out the necessary crews to non-floating offshore turbines? 

Wil Burns's picture
Wil Burns on Nov 17, 2020

Excellent overview, Robert, thanks. I am going to share this with my students, many of whom are currently writing papers on U.S. offshore wind issues.

Robert Dillon's picture
Thank Robert for the Post!
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