Offshore Turbines a Windfall for the Transition to Cleaner Energy

Environmental Policy Brief #126 | By: Todd J. Broadman | November 10, 2021

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Policy Summary

Today, 67,000 wind turbines are spinning kilowatts of energy throughout the country. That is the wind behind President Biden’s back in his recent wind energy initiative; that, and his pledge is to cut the nation’s fossil fuel emissions 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The cost to make and deploy wind energy has gone down over 50 percent since 2008. The administration wants to seize the moment; the plan is to install 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind turbines in U.S. waters by 2030.

Dubbed “wind farms,” the Dept. of the Interior has already begun the process ofidentifying locations in federal seas that are optimal for wind energyin the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Maine and off the coasts of the Mid-Atlantic States, North Carolina and South Carolina, California and Oregon. By 2025, these locations are slated to be leased to developers. This phased roll-out comes on the heels of the first major commercial offshore wind farm that has received approval by the Biden administration – off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Overall, wind represents less than 10 percent of the country’s total power generation with most of it coming from states in the central plains. The wind rich states of Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas are aggressively expanding their wind capacity. In Texas, wind provides more than 30 percent of total electricity.

For perspective, wind provides nearly 50 percent of energy in Denmark, Ireland and Germany. While the US installed a record 17GW of wind capacity in 2021, Europe, home to a majority of the world’s offshore wind, had nearly twice that capacity installed in 2020. The UK alone is planning on 40GW. China has even more ambitious plans for wind energy: they are looking at 73GW by the end of this year.

There are incentives in the recent spending bill for utility companies. The package includes a $150 billion program that would pay electric utilities to increase the amount of electricity they purchase from zero-carbon sources such as wind and solar, with penalties for those that do not make the transition. The investment will also be used to modernize the grid and improve its capacity for both solar and onshore and offshore wind energy sources.

Policy Analysis

Environmentalists are weighing-in as the administration anticipated. “In order for Americans living in coastal areas to see the benefits of offshore wind, we must ensure that it’s done with care for the surrounding ecosystem by coexisting with fisheries and marine life – and that’s exactly what this investment will do,″ said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. Environmental and cost challenges are far greater on the west coast. Pacific waters are much deeper and get deep closer to shore compared to the US’ Atlantic coastline. That makes it more difficult to affix turbines to the seafloor. There is a new technology in the form of floating wind farms.

Environmental hurdles will include potential harm to endangered species, conflicts with military activity, damage to underwater archaeological sites, or harm to local industries such as tourism. As they have in response to other offshore wind farms, commercial fishing groups and coastal landowners will likely try to stop the projects. In the Gulf of Mexico, where oil and gas exploration are a major part of the economy, fossil fuel companies could fight the development of wind energy as a threat to not only their local operations but their entire business model.

Though wind turbine prices are dropping across the board (now hovering around $750 per kilowatt of energy they generate), taller wind turbines require larger volumes of raw materials, both for their larger size and for the extra material required to provide structural reinforcement to keep them standing. Countries in Northern Europe, for example, where land for wind farms is more expensive, stand to gain more from bigger turbines than the US does, he notes. The global trend is towards installing fewer and bigger turbines.

The world’s largest offshore wind turbine is in China. It is 800 feet tall and the blades are the size of 10 football fields. These goliaths are likely the future of wind energy. In the U.S., the average rotor diameter in 2020 was about 125 meters (410 feet)—longer than a football field. Wind speeds are greater at higher altitudes and turbines will be taller to capture this increase.

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Photo taken from: Offshore Wind – Offshore Chinese Turbine

And size comes with a carbon footprint: a two-megawatt windmill is made up of 260 tons of steel that requires 300 tons of iron ore and 170 tons of coking coal, all mined, transported and produced by hydrocarbons. From construction to demolition though, the energy payback on a turbine can be less than a year. Payback times for CO2 and energy consumption range from 6 to 17 months for offshore installations. Each has a life cycle of less than 30 years. It takes energy to dismantle and recycle them.

As mentioned, the U.S. government issued the final federal approval for the (Martha’s Vineyard) Vineyard Wind project, a utility-scale wind farm that has been over a decade in the planning. The wind farm’s developers plan to install 62 giant turbines in the Atlantic Ocean with enough capacity to power 400,000 homes with clean energy. In June, the Biden administration announced a competitive lease sale for the New York Bight, an area between New York and New Jersey, that could generate 7GW of energy, enough to power more than 2.6 million homes. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will be responsible for auctioning the additional, new offshore lease sales, by 2025.

There is good reason why offshore wind turbines are the centerpiece of the transition from carbon to clean energy sources. Wind makes a big contribution towards reducing the 30 percent dependence on carbon sources for electricity generation. The country’s large population centers are along the east and west coasts and will be fed directly from offshore wind installations.

The downsides of uneven wind generation on shore are mitigated by far more consistent winds offshore. The industry will also be a significant employer – some 600,000 jobs are forecasted by 2050.

Currently, the carbon fiber blades cannot be recycled and have a lifespan of two decades.

Though ambitious, wind energy will likely not provide more than 20% of total U.S. electricity demand. The investment is strategically sound and a selective one with limited capacity.

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