Offshore wind potential in the US is huge but untapped

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A single turbine standing in the ocean with the horizon behind it.
In an aerial view, wind turbines generate electricity at the Block Island Wind Farm on July 7th, 2022, in Rhode Island.  | Photo by John Moore / Getty Images

The US has some of the most potential for offshore wind energy in the world, says a new analysis by the University of California, Berkeley. Offshore wind resources are plentiful enough to generate up to a quarter of the nation’s electricity by 2050, in time to help meet global climate goals.

It will take a monumental effort to reach those goals, with very little offshore wind capacity installed in the US today. And the industry is currently facing mounting political and financial challenges even after the Biden administration moved to open up much of the country’s shoreline to offshore wind development.

But the report shows what’s possible in the long run if the US can harness the power of those winds at sea. “The good news about this offshore wind potential is it is spread out across the country from the East Coast, West Coast to the Gulf, as well as the Great Lakes region,” Nikit Abhyankar, senior scientist at the University of California, Berkeley Center for Environmental Public Policy, said in a press briefing last week. “This will be a critical resource to diversify our clean energy supply.”

To limit global warming to the thresholds outlined in the Paris agreement, countries need to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero by 2050. The US, as the biggest historical greenhouse gas polluter, has a huge role to play if the world is to succeed in mitigating wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, and floods made worse by climate change. The Biden administration has committed to halving the nation’s emissions by the end of the decade and has plans to source electricity completely from carbon pollution-free energy by 2035.

Adding to that urgency, US electricity demand is forecast to nearly triple by 2050, according to the Berkeley report. On top of a growing economy, the clean energy transition means electrifying more vehicles and homes — all of which put more stress on the power grid unless more power supply comes online at a similar pace.

To meet that demand and hit its climate goals, the report says the US has to add 27 gigawatts of offshore wind and 85 GW of land-based wind and solar each year between 2035 and 2050. That timeline might still seem far away, but it’s a big escalation of the Biden administration’s current goal of deploying 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030. Europe, with an electricity grid about 70 percent the size of the US, already has about as much offshore wind capacity as the Biden administration hopes to build up by the end of the decade.

Right now, wind energy makes up just over 10 percent of the US electricity mix, and nearly all of that comes from land-based turbines. Installing turbines at sea can get more complex and expensive. You need specialized ships built to handle skyscraper-sized turbines, for instance. And companies are still developing floating turbines needed to one day master deeper ocean depths on the West Coast.

For now, the US has just two small wind farms off the coasts of Rhode Island and Virginia. Construction started on the foundations for the nation’s first commercial-scale wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in June.

Many plans for offshore wind farms in the US, however, are facing tough headwinds. There’s growing opposition from some coastal communities, the fishing industry, and some Republican lawmakers who’ve tried to tie east coast whale strandings to offshore wind development without any evidence connecting the two.

Project costs have gone up with higher interest rates and rising prices for key commodities like steel, Heatmap reports. That’s led to power purchase agreements falling through for some projects in early development, including plans in Rhode Island for an 884-megawatt wind farm that alone would have added more than 20 times as much generation capacity as the US has today from offshore wind. Developers are struggling to make projects profitable without passing costs on to consumers.

The Berkeley researchers, who worked with nonprofit clean energy research firm GridLab and climate policy think tank Energy Innovation, are more optimistic. The study found a modest 2 to 3 percent increase in wholesale electricity costs with ambitious renewable energy deployment. But renewable energy costs have fallen so dramatically in the past that the researchers think those costs could wind up being smaller over time.

“The industry has always proven all the researchers wrong, including ourselves, in the past. So we do believe the cost impact will not be a major factor going forward in the long run,” Abhyankar said in the press call.

There are typically stronger winds blowing over the smooth ocean surface compared to land, the potential payoff for offshore wind developers if they can get past the startup costs. Plus, offshore wind complements land-based renewables, the report points out, since it can fill in for solar panels at night. On the West Coast, offshore wind potential peaks in the summer and in the evening when electricity demand for home air conditioning rises. On the East Coast, winds pick up in the winter — just in time to meet added demand for heating if more homes and buildings go all-electric. It’s the clean energy dream that’s going to take a lot more work before it can become reality.