Offshore wind has been slow to take off in the US. Here’s what could change that.

Offshore wind is a prominent renewable energy source in Europe, China, and other parts of the world, but it is still uncommon in the United States. Off the shores of Virginia and Rhode Island, there are now just two offshore wind facilities in the United States.

High prices and a lack of support from states and the federal government have been blamed for the paucity of offshore wind in America. Off the coasts of New York and California, however, new offshore wind projects are already being developed.

The Biden administration has set a lofty goal for offshore wind power deployment of 30 gigawatts by 2030. Only 35 gigawatts of offshore wind power has been deployed globally as of last year. To achieve these objectives, the government is simplifying the federal approval process for offshore wind projects by lowering the number of permits required to get started.

“It’s a pretty ambitious goal,” says Erin Baker, an industrial engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “But with the price reductions we’ve seen in wind and offshore wind—we’ve seen about a 50 percent reduction over six years in offshore wind—I think it’s very doable.” Offshore wind projects are approved by seven federal departments, including the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Defense, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), according to Baker. It might be incredibly time consuming to obtain clearance from each individual. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has set goals to simplify the process and give financing to modernize ports and other infrastructure in order to reach these new energy targets.

As the industry has developed and turbines have gotten more efficient, the cost of offshore wind has decreased, but there is still room for improvement. According to a recent analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), just increasing the size of turbines and plants may reduce a project's average total cost per megawatt-hour during its lifetime by roughly 23% compared to turbines erected in 2019. If the federal government pushes for additional offshore wind, prices may continue to fall as investor interest grows and the business expands.

“We expected to see the costs decrease,” according to Matt Shields, the study's lead researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “But I was a little surprised about the magnitude. That’s really a game changer.” 

Developers, according to Baker, are ecstatic about the drive for new offshore projects. Wind development companies are putting in a lot of bids to get these projects started, including more than $4 billion in bids, which is three times the amount generated for offshore oil and gas lease auctions across the country in the last five years, for leasing off the coast of New York. By the end of the decade, offshore wind investments in the United States are likely to top $100 billion. 

However, establishing an offshore wind supply chain will take some time.  “We need people to install these, we need the right kinds of ships for installation, we need to have the transmission planning. There are a lot of pieces that need to come together, so if there’s this sense that there’s going to be a lot of offshore wind, then there’s a lot of reason to develop the supply chain,” Baker adds.

Offshore wind is most likely simplest to generate on the East Coast. Winds are strong across the Atlantic, and the ocean continental shelf along the shore is relatively shallow. As a result, classic, bottom-mounted offshore turbines, such as those at the Block Island Wind Farm, will perform well.

On the other hand, the Pacific is a different story. Because water depths drop rapidly off the coast of California, projected offshore wind off the coast of the two new leasing zones will most likely be floating offshore wind. Off the coast of Scotland, these types of wind farms exist, where the wind turbine is mounted on a floating platform that is tethered to the ocean floor, however this technology has yet to be deployed in the United States and is substantially more expensive than fixed turbines. Nonetheless, with California's significant clean energy targets, the developing technology has a lot of promise.

“Floating wind can help us reach areas once thought unattainable, opening up new opportunities,”  stated Amanda Lefton, Director of BOEM, in a statement earlier this year. “Here in California, we are going to bring it to scale, starting at the Morro Bay and Humboldt Wind Energy Areas. Offshore wind is here to stay.” 

The Gulf of Mexico also has a lot of potential, with study indicating that it has the ability to create over 500,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy per year, which is over twice the five Gulf states' current energy demands. The Great Lakes might potentially generate a sixth of the country's overall offshore wind energy potential.

Baker points out that the absence of land usage and near-invisibility of wind farms are two of the most significant advantages of offshore wind. Because of the high level of enthusiasm in getting this business off the ground, she believes the US will not only meet but even exceed its offshore wind ambitions. According to NREL study published last year, this includes areas outside of the conventional Northeast zones for offshore farms.

“Looking to the future, we expect offshore wind energy in the United States to expand beyond the North and Mid-Atlantic into the Pacific, Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico,” said Walt Musial, an NREL lead engineer, in a statement last year. "That expansion means abundant energy at lower costs, job growth, and progress toward decarbonization."

The United States has been slow to embrace offshore wind projects, but with the appropriate assistance, a wind of change might blow throughout the country very soon.