Susan Stewart, a Penn State engineering professor specializing in wind energy, waited more than 10 years to see an offshore wind turbine up close. A pregnancy caused her to miss a chance in 2005 to tour offshore turbines in Europe. There, offshore wind farms have produced clean energy since the early 1990s, but regulatory roadblocks and a lack of political will left plans for U.S. plants moldering in filing cabinets for years. Finally, in 2016, Stewart and a group of colleagues toured America’s first ocean wind farm, which had just been installed off Block Island, a popular Rhode Island vacation spot. “I was so excited,” Stewart says of seeing the turbines. “They’re majestic to me.”
While historic, that Block Island plant produces only about 30 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power about 20,000 average U.S. houses—or about 4% of Rhode Island’s homes. By comparison, a typical coal plant produces about 600 MW. In total, offshore wind farms currently generate just 42 MW in the U.S. But under an ambitious $3 billion Biden Administration plan unveiled last week, the U.S. is set to multiply that output to 30 gigawatts (GW)—30,000 MW—by the end of this decade. Among other things, the package includes federal loan guarantees for offshore wind development, a new “priority wind energy area” between Long Island and New Jersey, and funding for port improvements around the country to make it easier to build new offshore wind facilities.
“We are taking an all-of-government approach,” says Amanda Lefton, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The program, she says, “represents a sea change [from] how the United States had previously approached offshore wind.”
Experts say Biden’s offshore wind plan—a prelude to the massive $2 trillion infrastructure proposal he announced two days later—is a long overdue step in the right direction. Indeed, the U.S. has plenty of work to do to catch up with other parts of the world. Europe, for instance, currently generates about 25 GW of electricity from offshore wind farms, while China generates nearly 9 GW. In Europe—home to the world’s first offshore wind plant, which opened in Denmark in 1991—energy companies have spent decades building up their offshore wind manufacturing and infrastructure capabilities, which means new plants can be developed at lower costs. Their proven track record also makes it easier for them to raise capital by issuing bonds. The result: cheaper renewable energy.
Europe’s lead is likely to widen. Orsted, a Danish renewable energy giant, is currently developing about 3 GW in new offshore wind capacity via five projects along the U.S. East Coast—but the company built more capacity than that in Europe in just the past three years. Energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie projects Europe will add more than 85 GW in offshore turbine capacity over the next 10 years—nearly three times the Biden Administration’s goal. The U.K. alone is likely to reach 30 GW of offshore capacity by 2030, says David Toke, an energy policy researcher at the U.K.’s University of Aberdeen. That’s a handy feat for a nation with less than 10% the electricity demand of the U.S. China, meanwhile, is projected to add 73 GW in new offshore capacity over the next decade.
Offshore wind energy is only one solution in the renewables grab-bag. The U.S., which benefits from more wide open spaces and less population density compared to Europe, built 20 GW of new land-based wind power capacity in 2020, and is on track to build 12 GW more in 2021, while also adding 27 GW in new solar capacity in those two years. Overall, the U.S. currently generates about 20% of its electricity capacity from renewables, compared to 38% in the E.U.
Regardless, experts say it’s essential for the U.S. to develop its offshore wind capacity, especially in eastern coastal states with low land availability and high energy needs, like New York. And though offshore wind power can be more expensive to install than equivalent onshore capabilities, sea-based wind turbines can be built much larger and capture stronger and more consistent ocean winds, generating a bigger bang for the buck. Many offshore turbines in use today generate roughly twice as much power as their land-based equivalents, while upcoming models could be four or even five times as large, further increasing their production capabilities.
The U.S. has yet to embrace offshore wind in large part due to legal and political opposition. In 2016, the fishing industry of New York’s Long Island moved to block a plan to build turbines 11 miles off the coast amid concerns about the impact on their livelihoods. Another wind farm planned near Cape Cod was scrapped in 2017 after nearly two decades of legal challenges led in part by William Koch, brother of conservative kingmakers Charles and David Koch, who decried the plan’s “visual pollution” of a beachfront long occupied by the most elite families of the Northeast (the late Edward Kennedy, a Democratic senator for Massachusetts for nearly 50 years, also opposed the project). And a Trump Administration order last year blocked new offshore leasing along the U.S. Southeast coast. “This industry has been preparing and doing analysis and understands where the good sites are,” says Stewart. “What’s been needing to fall into place is definitely a bit of political support.”
Biden Administration officials argue the situation has changed. They say offshore wind enjoys more public support now than it did even a few years ago, prices have come down as the technology has improved (making it possible to build bigger, more efficient turbines), and U.S. states have begun developing wind energy on their own, both to meet renewable targets and to capture jobs in a potentially booming industry. Going forward, federal administrators say there will be a clearer and quicker review process for new projects. “We’re at a very different moment for offshore wind now than we were even a few years ago,” says Lefton.
The Biden plan represents only a slight acceleration for U.S. offshore projects already underway; New York and New Jersey were already planning to develop a combined 16.5 GW on their own, for instance. But the White House’s support may play ensure those and other projects actually get finished, rather than die on the vine like so many previous efforts. “The American people are recognizing that we have to do something about climate right now,” says Kelly Speakes-Backman, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. “Government is being responsive to that and actually marshaling the resources to pull all of these agencies to work together.”
For those who have waited decades to see the U.S. take firmer initiative on renewable energy, the Biden plan comes, at the very least, as a long-awaited move forward. “I’ve been almost numb to the fact that we’re not going to see this big growth quite yet,” says Stewart. “But I’m actually excited. In the next couple of years we’re going to see a lot of offshore wind constructed.”