Offshore Wind Stalls on East Coast, But Future Still Promising

Strong winds up and down the East Coast could power our energy future. Offshore wind is one of the most promising means of supplying clean, steady electricity that doesn’t suffer the intermittency of much renewable energy. On the East Coast, offshore wind is the “largest renewable energy resource that can help make an impactful difference on emissions and climate change,” explains Stephanie McClellan, who leads the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind at the University of Delaware.

Yet a 2011 plan to provide a transmission backbone for offshore wind along the East Coast has failed to get off the ground, and onto the ocean where it belongs. The needed wind farms aren’t being built. The failure is largely political, as opposition has blocked several major projects, notably the Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts. Other projects have stalled out New Jersey, Virginia, and New Hampshire. However, a new plan from the Clean Energy Group suggests a cooperative regional plan to break the gridlock.

Local opposition has been a key barrier to offshore wind. Massachusetts’ vaunted Cape Wind project, intended to jump-start wind all along the coast, was tied down for years by litigation from residents upset that it would impinge upon the skyline. Warren Leon of the Clean Energy Group points to “folks with very deep pockets who were very interested in seeing that project stopped.” Cape Wind was prevented from meeting key deadlines, until its developer finally pulled out.

Politics at the state level has also impeded offshore wind. In New Jersey, which has “tremendous potential” according to Markian Melnyk, President of Atlantic Wind Connection, Governor Chris Christie halted development, claiming to be looking out for ratepayers. However, Melnyk points out that offshore wind “would help move power efficiently through the state” and that New Jersey “continues to suffer from high energy prices.”

Much of the problem is that the federal government, with a dysfunctional Congress, is unable to take the lead. Furthermore, each state has different regulations for setting up offshore wind, making it difficult for companies to commit. “The challenge is coordinating multiple states with different leaders and different visions,” says Melnyk. For a turbine manufacturer, “why risk making a large investment on the East Coast if I didn’t know how states are developing”?

Many states are just too little to efficiently develop offshore wind. McClellan explains that “These projects very, very early on are saddled by high cost and they’re small projects” that “have a hard time being successful.”

With states fragmented and the federal government gridlocked, the solution might be a regional consortium. The idea, says Leon, is to “bring down some of the costs” and achieve “economies of scale, making permitting processes more similar” across the states. Key areas of cooperation could include financing, permitting, transmission, and incentives.

Environmental cooperation on the East Coast has occurred before, notably in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a coalition of states from Connecticut to Vermont that caps carbon emissions. RGGI shows “that states in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic can work together and cooperate on energy, air pollution, and greenhouse gases,” explains Leon. For offshore wind, the situation is “potentially more informal, a little more ad hoc, growing over time as states figure out what it makes sense to cooperate on.”

Advocates of interstate cooperation emphasize that states should continue moving forward on their own as much as possible. McClellan in particular still sees great potential for larger states acting alone, notably New York and Massachusetts. Lessons learned could then be conveyed to other states or formalized in a cooperative.

McClellan lauds a current plan introduced into the Massachusetts legislature to require utilities to purchase 2000 Megawatts of offshore wind that would put five projects into the pipeline. This would likely mean five offshore wind projects, providing “the kind of visibility that the marketplace really pays attention to.”

dong 400x267 Offshore Wind Stalls on East Coast, But Future Still Promising
Dong Energy Offshore Wind Farm, UK. Credit: Sean Marshall, FlickrCC

It is also significant that Denmark’s Dong Energy, one of the planet’s prime offshore wind developers, has signed a lease to develop off the Massachusetts coast. Indeed, the federal government continues to sell leases for future wind power development along the East Coast.

New York State, meanwhile, has set an aggressive target of 50 percent renewables by 2030, while New York City is shooting for 100%, ambitious goals that McClellan thinks will jump-start the offshore wind industry. She also mentions Renewable Portfolio Standards, which require increased energy production from renewables, as a particularly effective means of encouraging offshore wind.

Another important advance is the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm off of Rhode Island. Scheduled to start operating in 2016, Block Island will be the first offshore wind farm in the Northeast, albeit a small one. Leon exclaims that this “will show what can be done, give people something to look at.” Leon also points to a “very important area off of Maryland now contracting for development rights.”

“A lot of credit should go to Maryland,” says Melynk, which took the initiative to move forward and developed an effective financing method. Google, meanwhile, remains among a number of investors committed to building an offshore wind transmission backbone to dispatch power up and down the East Coast, should the commitment to building the wind farms materialize.

Perhaps the key obstacle is that early offshore wind projects will be expensive, with current technology some two to three times as much as onshore wind in the United States. This is true of any new technology that has not yet attained scale and expertise. As Leon explains, “the hardest project to do is the first one. After one or two big projects are in the water, it will be easier and less expensive to do the next one.”

From 2005 to 2015, for instance, the cost of offshore wind in Great Britain came down from about £175 per kilowatt hour to £125, according to a Statkraft UK report. In about a decade, offshore wind should be competitive with natural gas and it will only get cheaper.

As new projects are installed, prices plummet, as we saw happen with wind farms on land and more recently with solar photovoltaic. “All new infrastructure projects are expensive,” says Melnyk, but they become cost competitive with time. And offshore wind has the benefit of reliability over most forms of renewable energy, and of being far cleaner than any form of fossil fuels. Wind farms are “investments for the future” says Melnick. If we are to ensure a healthy planet for our children, we need to begin today.