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Tina Casey headshot

Floating Offshore Wind Power: America’s Secret Weapon in the Global Decarbonization Race

By Tina Casey
wind power

The latest IPCC report on climate change paints a frightening picture, but it also indicates there is time for rapid decarbonization to make a difference. For the U.S., that means tapping into massive new energy resources that have been dormant all these years. Floating offshore wind power is one of those areas, and it finally appears to be rousing from its slumber.

U.S. offshore wind power has barely budged in years

At first glance, any kind of offshore wind power in the U.S. would appear to be a non-starter. Even though conditions for offshore wind development are ideal along most of the Atlantic coast, the U.S. has lagged far behind the U.K., the Netherlands and other nations.

The offshore wind market began accelerating elsewhere around the globe during the Barack Obama administration. Unfortunately, federal efforts to coordinate Atlantic coast wind developmen  in the U.S. were stymied by legislators and governors in several Atlantic coast states, reportedly linked to the influence of the Koch family. A Koch family member was also instrumental in delaying the proposed Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, which would have been the nation’s first offshore wind farm.

Cape Wind was eventually abandoned and so was another early project, Fisherman’s Energy in New Jersey. The only one to survive the early years was the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island.

Block Island is still the nation’s only commercial offshore wind farm in operation. With five turbines and 30 megawatts of capacity, it pales in comparison to other projects around the world, like the 174-turbine, 1.2-gigawatt Hornsea wind farm in the North Sea. The first 50 Hornsea turbines went into operation in 2019.

Another North Sea project, the three-phase Dogger Bank wind farm, will have a capacity of 3.6 gigawatts when fully built out.

A secret weapon in the offshore wind power race

The U.S. appears to have been sleepwalking through all this activity, but appearances can be deceptive.

One key step occurred during the George W. Bush administration when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The new law established the Outer Continental Shelf Renewable Energy Program, which laid the groundwork for coordinating the lease of federal offshore areas. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) finalized the leasing process in 2009.

Republican office holders tied the Obama administration’s hands for the eight years following 2009, but oddly enough, the Donald Trump administration helped to free the logjam. Despite that former president’s well-known distaste for wind turbines, BOEM continued to lease out federal wind areas at a rapid pace all through his first and only term in office.

By the time President Joe Biden was inaugurated, the stage was set for a surge of activity along the Atlantic coast.

NBC-TV recently ran the numbers and counted 17 different offshore wind farms in the Atlantic coast pipeline, totaling 1,500 wind turbines.

All of these wind farms have a secret weapon up their sleeves. Today’s wind turbines are more powerful and efficient than the technology of just a few years ago, helping to drive down the cost of offshore wind power. Streamlined construction methods and a maturing supply chain also put today’s offshore wind projects a cost advantage over those built in earlier years.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) notes that offshore wind is still relatively expensive compared to onshore projects, but costs have been declining rapidly since 2014 and further significant declines are anticipated.

Floating offshore wind, the other secret weapon

So far, U.S. offshore wind activity has clustered only along the Atlantic coast, where relatively shallow water enables the construction of conventional, fixed-platform wind turbines.

For deeper and more challenging waters, floating wind turbine platforms are needed. Floating wind technology is relatively new, but it is already emerging in the commercial market and investors are already targeting the U.S.

As with Atlantic offshore wind development, overseas investors are driving the U.S. floating wind turbine market. That is the unfortunate payoff for years of obstruction and uncertainty fostered primarily by Republican office holders. It is also somewhat ironic, considering that the U.S. Department of Energy has been an early supporter of efforts to improve floating wind turbine technology.

Still, overseas investors can stimulate significant local economic activity in the U.S. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory ran the numbers in June, and calculated $12 billion annually in U.S. capital investment will occur in future years as the result of offshore wind development.

Ireland’s Simply Blue Group is among those targeting the U.S. for investment. Altogether, the firm already has a pipeline of 9 gigawatts in floating offshore turbine projects under its belt. Now it is eyeing the U.S. floating offshore wind market, which it calculates at 30 gigawatts.

Much of the opportunity lies along the Pacific coast, with other areas including parts of the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes.

Simply Blue notes that 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal communities. Land for both solar and wind farms is limited in these areas, making offshore wind development all the more imperative. Offshore wind resources can also help alleviate the need for major new transmission lines onshore. Floating wind turbines offer the additional advantage of remote sites that reduce or eliminate visual clutter from the shoreline.

Although floating offshore wind technology is currently more expensive than fixed-platform technology, costs are already coming down and further declines are anticipated.

As for the climate crisis, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that an overall total of 2,000 gigawatts in offshore wind power capacity are within reach in domestic waters by today’s technology. That is approximately twice the nation’s current electricity usage, meaning there is ample room for electrifying vehicles, buildings, and factories.

The means of decarbonizing the U.S. economy are already at hand. The only missing element is the political will to make the transition from fossil fuels to clean power as quickly as possible.

Up to now most of all the heavy lifting on climate action has been done by Democrats in office. A shift in the political winds is long overdue, but with the economic consequences of inaction already looming into view, the time is now for swift, unified action by all legislators in Congress and in statehouses across the country.

Image credit: Nicholas Doherty/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey