Study predicts major expansion of offshore wind along Atlantic coast

Offshore wind costs have dropped by 25 percent in the last five years.

The Block Island wind farm, the first commercial offshore wind farm in the U.S., sits, off the shores of Block Island, Rhode Island. CREDIT: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
The Block Island wind farm, the first commercial offshore wind farm in the U.S., sits, off the shores of Block Island, Rhode Island. CREDIT: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Almost every state along the Atlantic coast — 12 out of 14 — has offshore wind potential that exceeds its current electricity needs, according to a new study.

Bringing the electricity generated by offshore Atlantic wind farms ashore could help meet future electricity demand created by activities — transportation and the heating of homes and businesses — that are currently powered by gasoline, natural gas, and other fossil fuels.

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“Atlantic coastal states use more than a quarter of the nation’s energy,” Gideon Weissman, a policy analyst with the Frontier Group and one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement. “Offshore wind is the ideal resource for these states — it’s clean, it’s renewable, and it’s conveniently located near our biggest cities.”

Released Thursday, the new study, “Wind Power to Spare: The Enormous Energy Potential of Atlantic Offshore Wind,” was prepared by the Frontier Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, and the Environment America Research & Policy Center.

Deepwater Wind built North America’s first — and so far only — offshore wind farm in 2016, a 30-megawatt project near Block Island, Rhode Island. Several other offshore wind projects off the Atlantic coast are in development.

 

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

 

Currently in the planning stage are more than 25 offshore wind projects, with a generating capacity of 24 gigawatts. They’re located mainly off the U.S. Northeast and mid-Atlantic coasts. Among those 25 projects, 13 have leases and are moving forward, according to the study. With a total estimated capacity of 14.2 gigawatts, these 13 projects could power approximately 5.2 million homes.

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Like President Trump’s plan to open up virtually all offshore areas of the United States to oil and gas production, siting wind farms up and down the Atlantic coast will run into resistance. But opposition to offshore wind farms is not likely to be as strong.

Opponents often contend offshore wind farms will blight views of the ocean, kill birds, and harm fishing and tourism. But a major factor in favor of offshore wind growth is the new ability to build wind farms farther offshore, lessening the public’s concern about seeing turbines close to the coast.

Wind turbine blades do indeed kill birds, but their contribution to total bird deaths is extremely low, according to studies. Domestic and feral cats kill between 1.3 billion and 4 billion birds each year. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) study estimated that up to 2 million birds die each year after landing on fluid-filled waste pits at oil and gas production operations. In comparison, the FWS estimates wind turbines kill about 500,000 birds per year.

Wind energy supporters also believe offshore wind farms and commercial fishing can coexist. Developers of the Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind development in the U.S., compensated Rhode Island fishermen for work interruptions during construction of the turbine.

Source: Deepwater Wind
Source: Deepwater Wind

As new projects come online, the U.S. offshore wind energy sector is expected to continue producing expensive electricity — at least in the short term. The projected cost of electricity per megawatt-hour in the U.S. in 2022 will be $140 for coal, $110 for natural gas, and $157 for offshore wind — excluding any tax credits, which boost wind power’s competitiveness, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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The now-defunct Cape Wind project, which was supposed to be built off the coast of Massachusetts, benefited from supportive policies in Massachusetts. The state passed a law that required electric utilities to enter into long-term contracts of 10 to 15 years to purchase at least three percent of their power supply from renewable resources.

Two Massachusetts electric utilities — NStar and National Grid — ended up scrapping their power purchase agreements with the 468-MW Cape Wind project. The two companies had originally agreed in 2012 to buy 27.5 percent and 50 percent, respectively, of the wind project’s output.

They pointed to Cape Wind’s failure to secure financing and commence construction by the end of 2014 as their reason for pulling out. The financing and construction milestones were listed as conditions in the power purchase agreements.

Other proposed wind projects along the East Coast will be facing similar cost issues. But declining project costs could make offshore wind energy more politically attractive to state policymakers.

According to the asset management firm Lazard, the overall cost of new offshore wind has declined by 25 percent in the last five years. Estimates by Bloomberg New Energy Finance predict the cost will decline by an additional 71 percent by 2040.

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Even with offshore wind costs declining, the new study emphasizes that it remains important for policymakers to require utilities to enter into power purchase agreements with offshore wind projects that meet certain standards.

About a year ago, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) voted to approve a power purchase agreement with Deepwater Wind for the South Fork wind farm, a proposed 90 megawatt offshore wind farm located approximately 30 miles southeast of Montauk, New York. The South Fork project is one of five other offshore wind projects Deepwater Wind has on the drawing board after bringing the Block Island project online two years ago.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) had called on LIPA, a state-owned utility, to approve the power agreement with Deepwater Wind as part of New York’s goal of developing 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030.

More recently, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed an executive order in late January that directed state agencies to meet a goal of 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030.

As for Trump’s plan to open offshore areas to oil and gas activities, both New Jersey and New York have asked the U.S. Department of the Interior for exemptions from its offshore drilling plan.

The U.K. is the largest offshore wind market, with 36 percent of the world’s installed capacity. Germany stands in second position, with 29 percent of the world’s offshore wind capacity. European-based companies such as Statoil (recently renamed Equinor), Avangrid, and Ørsted are joining other wind energy developers to pursue projects along the U.S. East Coast.

And even though only one commercial offshore wind farm has been constructed in the United States so far, analysts say that U.S. offshore wind is expected to see significant growth in the coming decade.

In the U.S., developers are focusing almost exclusively on building offshore wind projects in the Atlantic, where there’s a relatively shallow shelf for 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 renewables advocates are also studying the ability to erect large wind turbines on floating platforms off the Pacific coast, particularly off the coast of California, where state renewable energy mandates must be met even if the electricity prices aren’t as cheap as fossil-fuel options.

On the East Coast, there are clear signs that a major expansion of offshore wind energy is on the horizon, according to the study.

“The Atlantic coastline has high wind speeds, a relatively shallow seafloor, and provides perfect locations for offshore turbines,” the study says. “Its winds are close to our biggest population centers and some of the nation’s biggest energy consumers.”