Rapidly declining costs make offshore wind energy a safer bet for East Coast governors

Developers win bids to build huge wind projects off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

A wind turbine of the Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind project in the U.S., towers above Block Island, Rhode Island. CREDIT: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
A wind turbine of the Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind project in the U.S., towers above Block Island, Rhode Island. CREDIT: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The future is looking bright for offshore wind energy in New England — as well as further down the U.S. East Coast — after two large projects were chosen to provide electricity to utilities in the region.

An 800-megawatt wind farm was chosen to be built off the coast of Massachusetts and a 400-megawatt wind project was selected for construction off the coast of Rhode Island, a state that is already home to the only offshore wind farm in the United States — the 30-megawatt Block Island facility.

The offshore Massachusetts wind farm, scheduled for completion in 2021, will represent up to 6 percent of the state’s total annual electricity load. The offshore Rhode Island project is expected to be completed in 2023, with its developers expecting the wind farm to produce power that will replace electricity produced by fossil fuel-fired power plants that are closing across New England.

The New England area, along with Northern California, have the greatest wind energy potential in the United States, according to studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But U.S. developers are focusing almost exclusively on building offshore wind projects in the Atlantic, where there’s a relatively shallow continental shelf that extends a long distance from shore, allowing traditional mooring and anchoring technologies.


Off the Pacific coast, the steep continental shelf makes it expensive to build the normal underwater foundations. Developers and renewable energy advocates are also studying the ability to erect large wind turbines on floating platforms off the Pacific coast, particularly off the coast of California.

The awarding of the 800-megawatt and 400-megawatt wind projects off the coast of New England should be viewed in the context of a large pipeline of offshore wind projects planned for the U.S. East Coast, according to Stephanie McClellan, director of the special initiative on offshore wind at the University of Delaware.

“It’s in the broader context of New York and New Jersey having commitments of another almost 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind to be procured in those two states. We’re building an industry with a pipeline of projects,” McClellan told ThinkProgress.

“I feel confident that from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod, the wind resource is fantastic and the waters are shallow enough to build,” she said.


In January, New York unveiled a plan to develop 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. In April, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a call for commercial interest in four additional areas off the coast of New York, between Long Island and the New Jersey coast.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy also signed an order in January that includes a target for 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind for the state. Some of the first projects will be located off the coast of Atlantic City, where Danish offshore wind giant Ørsted announced it is opening a new headquarters.

On Wednesday, Murphy signed legislation that requires the state to oversee the building of the 3,500 MW of offshore wind by 2030.

With such a large number of proposed projects, offshore wind in the United States is looking more promising every year. But the U.S. industry remains far behind Europe in its installation of offshore wind energy projects.

Europe has a total installed offshore wind capacity of more than 12,600 megawatts, generated by 3,589 grid-connected wind turbines in 10 countries. The United Kingdom is the world’s most developed offshore wind market and accounts for about 36 percent of installed capacity, followed by Germany in the second spot, with 29 percent, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

The capital costs of offshore wind generation in Europe are falling sharply, from $3.8 million per megawatt of electricity in 2016, to $2.2 million per megawatt at the end of 2017. The primary driver for these reductions is the increase in turbine capacity. Also, the ongoing advancement in turbine and platform technology will continue to drive down the cost of offshore wind, Bruce Hamilton, director of energy practice at consulting firm Navigant told Yale Environment 360 earlier this year.

In the United States, offshore wind costs are continuing to drop to a price point that will rapidly make the energy source competitive with other forms of electricity generation, the Business Network for Offshore Wind said Wednesday in a news release. Two members of the offshore wind energy industry group — Avangrid Renewables and Deepwater Wind — were the winning bidders in the competition to build wind farms off the coast of New England


Analysts expect a wave of bigger projects to lead to falling costs in the United States, as has happened in Europe. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts there could be 22,000 megawatts in offshore wind installed by 2030.

“We, here in the U.S., reap all the lessons and stand on the shoulders of all of those who have come before us,” McClellan said. “The U.K. really wanted to go big on offshore wind to meet their carbon-reduction targets. They put a tremendous amount of resources into the R&D to bring the costs down and that’s resulted in these larger, more efficient turbines as well as more efficient installation of them and more efficient maintenance of them.”

The winning bidders

Vineyard Wind, a project backed by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables, was chosen on Wednesday by the administration of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and state utilities to build an 800-megawatt offshore wind farm off the southern coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

Vineyard Wind beat out two competitors: Deepwater Wind, which built the Block Island project, and teamed up with National Grid; and Bay State Wind, a joint effort by Eversource and the Danish firm Ørsted, the world’s largest offshore wind company. Current plans call for construction of the Vineyard Wind project to begin 2019 and it to become operational by 2021.

In 2016, Baker signed a bill into law that requires electric utilities to purchase a combined 1,600 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind farms in a little over 10 years. All of the mandated wind energy is not required to be built in state waters.

U.S. wind energy potential based on average wind speeds at 300 feet, the height of most turbines. The northeastern U.S. and Northern California coasts (in red) have the greatest potential. CREDIT: National Renewable Energy Laboratory
U.S. wind energy potential based on average wind speeds at 300 feet, the height of most turbines. The northeastern U.S. and Northern California coasts (in red) have the greatest potential. CREDIT: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Vineyard Wind’s 800-megawatt proposal was chosen by state utilities Unitil, National Grid, and Eversource Energy. It is the largest ever procurement of offshore wind by a U.S. state.

For the second large offshore wind energy project, Rhode Island selected Deepwater Wind to construct a new, 400-megawatt offshore wind farm. The Revolution Wind project — more than 10 times the size of the Block Island Wind Farm — was selected through a competitive offshore wind procurement process in collaboration with Massachusetts.

Deepwater Wind will need to negotiate a contract to supply the wind farm’s power to Rhode Island electric utility National Grid. That contract will then need to be reviewed by the Rhode Island state regulators.

The company also will have to apply for permits from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, along with the state Department of Environmental Management, the Coastal Resources Management Council, and other agencies.

In March 2017, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) set a goal for the state to increase its clean energy resources portfolio ten-fold by 2020 to reach a total of 1,000 megawatts.

The U.S. offshore wind industry is benefiting from investments into research that have resulted in dramatically lower costs. That’s why so many governors along the East Coast, explained McClellan, are now feeling confident that they are engaging with an industry that is on a steep and rapid cost decline.

“Until that could be demonstrated to these governors, they were unwilling to make that bet on offshore wind,” she said.