Inside Clean Energy: Offshore Wind Takes a Big Step Forward, but Remains Short of the Long-Awaited Boom

States are raising their offshore wind goals and approving big contracts, yet actual construction is years away.

The Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, is pictured on June 13, 2017. Credit: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, is pictured on June 13, 2017. Credit: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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Last week, New Jersey officials revealed which developers had won contracts to build two giant offshore wind farms, the latest in a series of announcements by states about plans to add wind energy.

The U.S. offshore wind industry has reached a point where states continue to one-up one another with ambitious goals for development. Officials in seven states (Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia) have awarded contracts for projects that add up to more than 14,000 megawatts. The industry looks poised for a boom that would lead to tens of thousands of jobs and a bounty of clean energy.

The problem is that the industry has been poised for a boom for a while now, with little to show for it. New project announcements keep coming, but the plans announced years ago have been agonizingly slow to materialize. The United States now has just two operational offshore wind farms, with a total of seven turbines and a capacity of 42 megawatts.

“I’ve been involved in offshore wind since 2003. So, 18 years and we’ve got seven wind turbines offshore,” said Jeremy Firestone, a University of Delaware professor and director of the university’s Center for Research in Wind.

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He has seen several moments when the boom in development seemed ready to arrive and thinks we are in one of those moments right now.

Is it finally going to happen?

“We’re going to have to just wait and see,” he said.

New Jersey is the latest proposed addition. The New Jersey Board of Utilities said last week that it has selected two proposed projects to receive long-term contracts to sell electricity to the state’s ratepayers. The largest of the two, with 1,510 megawatts, is the Atlantic Shores project, developed by co-owners Shell, a Dutch oil company, and EDF, a French electricity utility. The other project, with 1,148 megawatts, is Ocean Wind 2, developed by Ørsted, the Danish company that is the global leader in offshore wind.

The projects would contribute a projected $3.5 billion in economic benefits to New Jersey and enough electricity to power 1.15 million homes, the state said.

This follows New Jersey’s announcement in 2019 that it had selected Ocean Wind 1 as the first project to receive a state contract. That project, with 1,100 megawatts, is co-owned by Ørsted and the local utility, PSEG.

Add it all up and New Jersey trails only New York in the amount of offshore wind capacity selected through this kind of state review process. The states see offshore wind as an essential part of meeting their climate goals and providing clean energy to cities that don’t have much room for onshore wind or solar.

But developers of all the U.S. projects are waiting and watching the Vineyard Wind 1 project off of Massachusetts.

In 2018, when Vineyard Wind got its state contract, it looked like a behemoth, with a planned 800 megawatts of capacity. Then, as now, the country’s largest offshore wind farm was the Block Island project off of Rhode Island, with 30 megawatts. Since then, the only other project to come online is in Virginia, with two turbines and 12 megawatts.

Vineyard Wind’s owners said at the time that they were aiming to begin construction in 2019 and be fully operational by 2021. The project’s co-developers are Avangrid, a subsidiary of a Spanish utility, and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, a Danish investment firm.

And then everything slowed down. The fishing industry opposed the project, raising concerns about harm to fishing areas. Local opposition also came from communities that would host the power lines and other infrastructure.

In the summer of 2019, with the clock ticking on the project’s timeline to begin construction, the federal government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management stepped on the brakes. The office said it needed more time before issuing an environmental impact statement because it wanted to review the cumulative effects of having several proposed offshore wind lease areas next to one another, as opposed to just reviewing the lease area for Vineyard Wind.

Environmental advocates said the delay was an attempt by the Trump Administration to undermine renewable energy. 

It was only in May, under President Joe Biden, that the federal office approved construction of Vineyard Wind.

The next step for the project is for the developers to announce a financial closing, which means that they have enough funding to move forward with construction. They have said they expect to have financing secured by the end this year and will begin construction after that.

The earliest that Vineyard Wind will be generating electricity for consumers is 2023, and that’s assuming no additional delays, which I’ve learned not to do.

Meanwhile, the conflict between the wind industry and the fishing industry is largely unresolved.

But objections from industry are just part of a broader unease in some coastal communities.

“We are embarking on a very large change in the ocean in the Atlantic,” Firestone said. “It’s wonderful clean energy that displaces fossil fuel energy and will be a benefit to human health and environmental justice and to the climate, but we’re also industrializing the ocean. If you put 30, 40, 50 gigawatts of wind turbines out there, you’re changing it. We shouldn’t be surprised that there’s opposition.”

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Other projects have timelines that would put them online after Vineyard Wind as they all are working through the process of getting permits and financing. For example, Atlantic Shores in New Jersey would be complete in 2028, according to EDF.

In addition to the more than 14,000 megawatts in projects with state contracts, there are additional project proposals that are vying for upcoming state contracts, and additional lease areas on the East Coast and West Coast that may turn into projects. There is even early talk about offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico.

But until turbines start to go up on the water, an entire industry is left to plan and wait and hope.


Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week.

Power Line Connections Remain a Challenge for Offshore Wind: One of the major sticking points for offshore wind farm proposals is that the projects need to connect to the grid somewhere on land, and communities are leery of hosting the heavy-duty power lines that are needed to do that. The siting of power lines is a challenge because it involves federal, state and local governments and can be delayed or stopped by opposition at multiple levels, as Justin Horwath and Yannic Rack report for S&P Global Intelligence.

Misinformation Fueled Ohio Bill Restricting Renewable Energy: A bill sitting on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk would impose new limits on renewable energy projects, following a debate that clean energy advocates say was dominated by misinformation that minimized the benefits and overstated the potential harm of wind and solar power. This is the latest example of Ohio lawmakers’ hostility to renewable energy, as Kathiann Kowalski reports for Energy News Network. “This bill will have a generational impact,” said Trish Demeter, chief of staff for the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund. “They’re keeping Ohio out of the global market that is renewable energy.”

Oregon Bill Would Slash Emissions: While Ohio is putting up obstacles for renewable energy, Oregon lawmakers are sprinting in the opposite direction with a bill that would ease construction of renewable energy and cut emissions. House Bill 2021, which is now awaiting Gov. Kate Brown’s signature, would sharply cut carbon emissions by 2040, making Oregon one of the country’s leaders in addressing climate change, as Dirk VanderHart reports for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Solar Analysts Split on Effects of Biden Sanction on Solar Material: The Biden administration has announced trade sanctions on imports from a silicon metal producer in China because of concerns about forced labor. Analysts disagree about how much the move will affect U.S. solar companies, as Emma Foehringer Merchant reports for Canary Media. The restrictions are on Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., which is a supplier for makers of solar panels. One analyst says solar companies are “a little panicked” because of uncertainty about what the sanctions will mean, but others say the effects are likely to be small. Jenny Chase, the top solar analyst at BloombergNEF said the challenge is going to be tracing which solar panels have Hoshine’s product in them. “Nobody tracks where their metal silicon comes from,” she said.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.