Biden Wants to Increase U.S. Offshore Wind Energy. Can He Do It?

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Biden Wants to Increase U.S. Offshore Wind Energy. Can He Do It?

The Biden administration has unveiled plans to dramatically ramp up the nation’s offshore wind industry to help fulfill U.S. climate pledges. How realistic is the roadmap?

What’s happening?

Last month, the Joe Biden administration laid out plans to accelerate the nation’s transition to carbon neutrality by facilitating the development of wind farms in coastal waters off the United States. With several advantages over land-based turbines, a thriving offshore wind industry has the potential to drive job growth while advancing President Biden’s decarbonization strategy. 

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The country’s first commercial offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind, located off the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, received federal approval in May and started construction in November. The project is expected to start generating power in 2023. The Interior Department is aiming to lease federal waters along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts for more than a dozen projects by 2025.

How will offshore wind help the U.S. meet its climate goals?

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As part of its renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement, the Biden administration has pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by half of its 2005 levels by 2030, and it views scaling up offshore wind power as a critical step on the path toward that goal.

The plan is to have U.S. offshore wind farms producing thirty gigawatts of energy by 2030, enough to power more than ten million homes. Today, U.S. offshore wind production is negligible, at less than 1 percent of the administration’s target. Experts say that meeting this renewable energy goal will prevent the release of seventy-eight million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over that time period.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that the technical resource potential for U.S. offshore wind is more than two thousand gigawatts. Biden hopes to unlock more than one hundred gigawatts of that capacity by 2050. 

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Offshore wind farms have the potential to produce more electricity than onshore projects due to the generally stronger, more consistent winds at sea. Moreover, developing wind farms along the extensive U.S. coastline can help meet the electricity demand in areas with high population density and where available land is scarce.

How does U.S. wind power compare to that of other countries?

The United States is a global leader in onshore wind power—second only to China in capacity [PDF] as of 2020—but it lags behind many of its peers in offshore capacity. Coastal European nations and China have led the way: the United Kingdom is the world’s largest operator of installed offshore wind capacity, while China is leading in the construction of new offshore wind installations for the third consecutive year.

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As the offshore wind market expands, international competition between turbine manufacturers is heating up, with Chinese, European, and U.S. rivals all jockeying for new business. 

What are the challenges?

Biden’s goal of thirty gigawatts of offshore wind power will require the installation of some two thousand turbines in the water by 2030. Today, the United States has just a tiny fraction of that—only seven turbines across two offshore wind farms. Industry analysts expect any effort to dramatically boost offshore wind capacity to be met with considerable political opposition and legal challenges. Groups likely to push back include marine conservationists, commercial fishermen, and oceanfront landowners and developers. The ill-fated Cape Wind project, which set out to install an offshore wind farm in Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound in the 2000s, is a cautionary tale. The project was abandoned after investors lost a decade-long legal battle with billionaire William Koch, who owns extensive waterfront real estate on Nantucket. 

The federal government has been auctioning off coastal waters for offshore wind power development for nearly a decade, but the lengthy permitting process has impeded these projects. For example, Vineyard Wind submitted its plans to the federal government in 2017, but they weren’t approved until this past May.

Wind turbines from the Modular Offshore Grid project generate electricity off Belgium’s coast.
Wind turbines from the Modular Offshore Grid project generate electricity off Belgium’s coast. Eric Herchaft/Reuters

Another potentially major roadblock is the Jones Act, a century-old law that restricts the shipment of cargo between American ports to U.S.-built and -registered vessels operated by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Turbine installations require the use of special vessels that are not yet produced in the United States. The first U.S.-made vessel is currently being built, but the country will need several to meet Biden’s ambitious targets. 

Though offshore turbines are more expensive in terms of per unit of energy generated than solar and onshore wind farms, they have lower transmission costs. Once the supply chain grows, the Department of Energy (DOE) says larger wind plant and turbine sizes could bring down costs by more than 20 percent. In October, the DOE announced $13.5 million in funding for environmental and wildlife research to advance offshore wind development and $3 billion in federal loan guarantees and upgrades to coastal ports.

To fuel the industry, Biden is also pushing for legislation that includes a $150 billion program that would require a portion of the nation’s electricity to come from zero-carbon sources such as wind, and would penalize utilities that continue to burn fossil fuels.  

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