New England is set to lose eight gigawatts of generating capacity from fossil fuels as aging power plants built in the 1950s and ‘60s retire and go offline. This will create a vacuum that could be filled by Canadian hydropower, natural gas, or offshore wind. Assuming that American utilities would rather build new sources of power in the United States than send their money to Canada, New Englanders will have two options. On the one hand, they could fill the energy gap with wind power, which has historically earned resistance from even climate-conscious NIMBYists. On the other hand, they could go with currently-cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas.
The decision is less obvious than one might think.
For as much as we hear about the untapped reserves of natural gas waiting to power our cities, it’s our abundant wind resources that should drive the conversation around clean energy. Winds along the coasts of the United States could provide four times the energy needed to power the whole country. And while wind still ranks among the costlier forms of power, in Europe — the world leader in offshore wind — prices have fallen markedly. Said Jeff Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind, “In the New England region, New York and even into New Jersey, building a new gas plant… is just about the same price as building a new offshore wind farm in Europe today.”
In the long term, natural gas can’t compete with offshore wind. That’s because any new investment in natural gas has to be weighed against our climate goals. If we are to keep global warming to less than 2º C, we will have to abandon fossil fuels completely, and we will have to do so sooner rather than later. That means that new gas power plants, new pipelines, and new drilling operations will likely come with an expiration date. And when gas-fired power plants are closed down before they reach the end of their operating life, consumers will foot the bill. Moreover, investing in 20th century fuels like natural gas will only slow the transition to 21st century energy, as wind and solar operators work to reach the economies of scale needed to further drive down the price of electricity.
In the short-term, natural gas still offers a more attractive option to utilities, which is why offshore wind firms are clamoring for regular tax credits and streamlined regulations to help them compete with fossil fuels. The fledgling industry has the potential to generate thousands of new jobs, both for the engineers who design wind turbines and the men and women who build them. According to the Department of Energy, erecting 54 gigawatts of capacity from offshore wind would create 43,000 permanent jobs.
“This is an industry with enormous potential,” said Grybowski. “Right now, all the really high tech work in offshore wind is being done in Europe… but as we build projects in the U.S., more and more of the supply chain will come to the U.S.”
Some lawmakers are trying to clear the way for offshore wind. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) have proposed an investment tax credit for offshore wind, which would give the industry the certainty it needs to plan ahead.
Constructing more offshore wind power will also help consumers to insulate themselves against fluctuations in the price of fossil fuels. “We know the price of oil and gas goes up and down. What goes down will eventually go up,” said Sen. Carper. “We need some other ways to generate electricity that are cost-effective and also do good things for the environment.”
Sen. Carper stands among the small number of Democrats who voted to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. When asked about his support for the project, he said, “This has been an impediment to us getting other stuff done, including investment tax credits that would pave the way to offshore wind.”
If Senators Carper and Collins succeed in passing the investment tax credit, new wind projects would flourish in the Northeast. The region’s most populous cities lie along the sea, within arm’s reach of powerful ocean gales, and already, communities are preparing to meet the demand for wind energy. Workers are outfitting old fishing ports to service construction operations. Schools like the University of Massachusetts and the University of Maine are turning out dozens of PhDs in wind engineering. And four Northeastern states — New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine — are working with the Department of Energy to create a thriving market for offshore wind. The Atlantic coast is ripe for a clean energy explosion. It’s up to lawmakers to light the fuse.
Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy, and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.