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Scientists: Offshore Wind a ‘Missed Opportunity’ in U.S.

The United States’ first offshore wind farm is now being built off the coast of Rhode Island. But the U.S. may be farther from large-scale offshore wind development than it was a decade ago partly because the federal government has not focused urgently enough on building renewables, a group of University of Delaware scientists says.

The government, through its offshore wind leasing program, is promoting offshore turbines for job growth and economic development rather than harnessing their most effective long-term potential — to tackle climate change, the scientists at the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration wrote in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm in the United Kingdom.
Credit: Statkraft/flickr

“Offshore wind development has been marketed piecemeal, lease-block-by-lease-block, auction-by-auction, or project-by-project, and as fostering jobs and economic development rather than positioned as a way to improve air quality, mitigate climate change and suppress electricity prices,” the paper says.

The U.S. is far behind Europe in developing offshore wind farms, a zero-carbon energy source with huge development potential off U.S. coastlines. Turbines began construction in Europe a decade ago, at about the same time the U.S. began its offshore wind leasing program.

Today, there are more than 2,300 wind turbines twirling off the coasts of 11 European countries, with many more on the way. In the U.S., other than several federal offshore lease sales that have been completed during that time, there has been little movement to harness the 4,000 gigawatts of offshore wind power potential within 50 miles of the shorelines on both coasts.

The Block Island Wind Farm under construction is a demonstration project that will help Americans understand what offshore wind power looks like, but there are no other wind farms scheduled to be built after it, the paper’s lead author, University of Delaware energy policy professor Jeremy Firestone, said.

The U.S. Department of Energy paints a more optimistic picture of the current status of the offshore wind industry. The agency says in a report published Tuesday that even though the Block Island project is the only offshore wind farm under construction, companies have secured the rights to build 13 other wind farms through the offshore wind leasing program, and more than 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind power capacity could be operating by 2020.

The Energy Department report says that projects totaling 15,650 megawatts of electric generating capacity are in various stages of development in the U.S. If all those wind farms are constructed, their generating capacity would surpass the amount of power Europe can currently produce from offshore wind farms. And, lessons learned there could make offshore wind farm development happen faster in the U.S.

“The progress towards cost reduction in the European offshore wind energy industry should translate to U.S. projects and allow developers to offer offshore wind power at increasingly competitive prices relative to other low-carbon sources of electricity generation,” the DOE report says.

But the development of those wind farms is not certain, and Firestone said federal policy will have to change for offshore wind to develop more quickly in U.S. waters.

“United States offshore wind has so far remained a missed opportunity, given its huge resource size and proximity to population centers, the magnitude of the climate change problem and the public’s hunger for transformative energy policy with offshore wind as a part of the vanguard,” Firestone’s paper says. “Among reasons for Europe’s success are political will, price and policy support and spacial planning, although some European countries have been more successful than others.”

A lifeboat rescue drill near an offshore windfarm in the United Kingdom.
Credit: Archangel12/flickr

The paper says that offshore wind took off in Europe a decade ago after the European Union put a price on carbon emissions. And, in 2009, the EU aligned its energy policy with its climate goals, relying more on the adoption of clean energy rather than on switching from coal to natural gas for electric power generation as the U.S. is doing today.

Even though onshore wind and solar are growing quickly in the U.S., utilities here are quickly embracing natural gas as their fuel of choice as prices have fallen and climate policy makes it more challenging for coal plants to operate profitably. Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, but still emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal when it burns.

There are plenty of things the U.S. could do make future offshore wind development in the U.S. more certain, including changing how offshore wind development areas are leased, Firestone said.

The United States should look to maximize installed offshore wind capacity over the next 10 years responsibly, rather than maximize short-term government revenue through lease auctions, regardless of whether they result in new wind farm development, the paper says.

The paper calls for an offshore wind tax credit, loan-guarantees for those financing new wind farms and better regional planning to allow offshore wind to effectively integrate with onshore power grids. And, more research is needed on ways to reduce the environmental impacts of offshore wind farms and on how to harness the most energy from the wind blowing across the ocean.

Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, said that the paper’s call for loan guarantees and tax credits for offshore wind are reasonable to help kick-start new development.

“The suggested next steps would definitely increase the likelihood of faster offshore wind development in the U.S.,” he said. “I also think it is necessary to educate the public and policymakers about the health and climate cost savings to the U.S. of developing offshore wind.”

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