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Offshore wind finally gets blowing in the US

It’s all happening.

Block Island wind farm Block Island Wind Farm

All the way back in December 2016, I wrote about a milestone: The US finally had its first operating offshore wind farm, the Block Island Wind Farm off of Rhode Island.

As milestones go, it was somewhat sad (the farm is just 30 megawatts) and late (offshore wind’s been around for 20 years), but at least it signaled the US was in the offshore-wind game.

Recent developments suggest that momentum is now gathering in earnest.

New England states are signing big contracts for offshore wind

In 2016, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed energy legislation that, among other things, called for 1,600 MW of new offshore wind energy by 2027. That led to a solicitation for 400 MW last year, bid on by three wind developers. In late May, the state picked a winner: the 800 MW Vineyard Wind project off the coast of southern Massachusetts, which will start construction in 2019.

In 2017, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo set a goal of increasing the state’s clean energy tenfold, to 1,000 MW, by 2020. So on the same day, Rhode Island selected the winner of its own solicitation (which it ran in partnership with Massachusetts): the Revolution Wind project, by developer Deepwater Wind, to start construction 30 miles off the coast, about 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, in 2022.

Together, those two wind farms would boost US offshore wind capacity from 30 MW to 1,230 MW. Not bad!

It will be good for the local economies. This year, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center released an Offshore Wind Workforce Report that estimates that, considering all its direct and indirect effects, “the deployment of 1,600 MW of offshore wind is estimated to support between 6,870 and 9,850 job years over the next ten years and generate a total economic impact in Massachusetts of between $1.4 billion to $2.1 billion.” Between $675 and $800 million of that is direct economic output.

offshore wind worker
Nice work if you can get it.
Getty Images/EyeEm

And while there isn’t much data available yet, prices seem to be coming down. The price for that original Block Island wind project was $0.244/kWh. In 2017, Maryland commissioned two offshore-wind projects (together 368 MW) at a price of $0.132/kWh, just over half. That’s still well over onshore wind’s high-end price of $0.06/kWh, but headed in the right direction quickly.

The price for the Massachusetts project hasn’t been revealed yet, but it will reveal a great deal about the industry’s short-term future.

Other Northeastern states are getting in on the action too. Earlier this year, New York announced an offshore-wind master plan that envisions a $6 billion industry with 2,400 MW of capacity by 2030. The state will solicit 400 MW this year and another 400 next year. In April, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issued a call for commercial interest in four other areas of the New York coast. (Statoil has already won a bid for rights to 80,000 acres, at an unexpectedly aggressive $42.5 million.)

Next door, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has come in with guns blazing — earlier this year, he unveiled a plan for a whopping 3,500 MW of offshore wind by 2030. The Danish wind giant Ørsted is building a headquarters in Atlantic City, and some of the first projects will be just off the Atlantic City coast.

Meanwhile, BOEM also records offshore lease sales in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Delaware.

The Trump administration has come around on offshore wind

Donald Trump has a long history of hating on wind power — at least wind farms that threaten to block his views or impact his commercial operations. (He tweeted against a Scottish wind farm near one of his golf courses 60 times and reportedly wrote the country’s first minister at the time a series of unhinged letters about it.)

But Trump’s personal obsessions don’t seem to be dictating policy in this area. In April, the Department of Interior came out in strong support of the offshore industry. Secretary Ryan Zinke wrote an op-ed boosting the industry and DOI announced two new leases off the coast of Massachusetts amounting to 390,000 acres.

The US is playing catch-up to Europe, but momentum is building

The US will be catching up to Europe for years. The EU already has 16,000 MW of offshore wind installed, and growth is only accelerating; investment in the industry could top $10 billion in 2018, led by the UK, where prices are coming in at eye-popping lows.

Nonetheless, it really does look like the US is getting into gear. The US Department of Energy predicts around 22,000 MW of offshore wind by 2030. But like so many other clean energy technologies, offshore wind already seems to be advancing and getting cheaper faster than anyone expected. My bet is that DOE’s number, like the vast bulk of predictions about renewable energy to date, will prove wildly below the mark.

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