Washington is starting to wake up to something that's been obvious to marine scientists for years. The winds blowing off U.S. waters could be a key to a national clean energy and green jobs revolution.
On Tuesday, the federal government awarded five leases to three companies that want to develop wind turbines off the New Jersey and Delaware coasts for the production of renewable energy.
They're the first such leases the Department of Interior has ever issued for the Outer Continental Shelf. If this official statement is any indication, they won't be the last:
"We made the development of offshore wind energy a top priority for Interior. The technology is proven, effective and available and can create new jobs for Americans while reducing our expensive and dangerous dependence on foreign oil."
The declaration comes as the U.S. Congress is in the midst of a debate over a proposal that would create a costly long-distance "transmission highway" to carry land-based wind energy (among other clean and dirty sources) from the Great Plains to the power-hungry cities of the American East.
The massive transmission build-out spells economic opportunity for the wind-rich Midwest. But for the heads of the Eastern seaboard states, it spells something else entirely: a threat to their regional energy security, their climate protection goals and new green jobs.
In a letter sent last month to the Senate and House leaders of both parties, 11 East Coast governors made the case against the cross-country supergrid:
"...it would hinder our efforts to meet regional renewable energy goals with regional resources and would establish financial conditions in our electricity markets that would impede development of the vast wind resources ... just off our shores for decades to come."
In 2007, researchers at the University of Delaware and Stanford University released the nation's first empirical analysis of the offshore wind resource off the Mid-Atlantic coast, surveying power possibilities in shallow waters from Massachusetts to North Carolina.
The peer-reviewed study, published in the Geophysical Research Letters (see proof version here), said East Coast winds could deliver a massive 330 GW of average electrical power. That's nearly five times the region's current electricity demand of 73 GW.
The question of course is, how? Is it practical to fully tap into that potential, considering that, to date, no offshore wind project has ever been constructed or even fully permitted off the U.S. coast?
According to Dr. Willet Kempton, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware and lead author of the analysis, the answer is yes. For starters, "there are no technology barriers" to meet 100 percent of the power needs of the U.S. states from Virginia through Maine with offshore wind, he told SolveClimate.
What are needed are wind turbines – thousands of them.
Specifically, it would take 166,720 wind turbines, each generating up to 5 MW of power, to build out the full resource of 330 GW for the Eastern Seaboard, the report found. Getting to the region's current demand of roughly 70 GW would require about a fourth as many. That, says Kempton, is doable within two decades.
The region would need 10 turbine factories, each churning out 7 GW of windmill capacity each year. It's not a stretch to think it could happen.
Delaware alone just retired two auto plants, leaving underutilized manufacturing capacity and over a thousand assembly workers without jobs. If you consider all the unused factory space across America that could be converted to a wind parts industry, it's not hard to see how the entire nation could benefit from an offshore renewables boom.
What of the costs of tapping these winds? Some estimates claim that it's twice as costly to operate a wind farm in the ocean than operating one on land. But that figure is misleading.
Winds offshore blow stronger and steadier than those onshore, and offshore turbines boast one and a half times the capacity of their inland counterparts. A vital point: Offshore winds are strongest during the day when peak energy use is at its height. Not so on land.
Further, offshore turbines don't require the expensive transmission system to carry the electricity. The distances to concentrated coast city load centers are relatively short, at just a dozen or so miles away.
When you consider these factors, the cost equation changes dramatically. Currently, the price of offshore wind is 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, thanks to federal tax credits, meaning that on the East Coast, it's already competitive with dirty electricity sources.
Like most clean energy development, what it comes down to is not resource availability, technological breakthroughs (which isn't to say current technology can't be improved) or even costs. It's a matter of political will – of policy barriers and regulatory hurdles.
Denmark, whose resource potential resembles that of the U.S., is a model of what's possible. The nation installed the world's first offshore wind farm in 1991. Utility-scale installations have been operating there for a decade. European countries bordering the North Sea have also started to exploit their offshore wind resource.
Kempton is optimistic that the U.S. can and will catch up with Europe:
"I think it's more likely than not. And I would not have said that two years ago."
The arrival of the Obama administration is the most obvious reason for the new confidence, but so is the growing public acceptance of offshore wind technology.
The highly publicized, well-financed opposition to the controversial Cape Wind project off Nantucket Sound "is an anomaly," Kempton said.
In fact, the disapproval there is not at all representative of opposition in all U.S. coastal regions.
In a study on public attitudes for the proposed Bluewater wind farm in Delaware (see more study results here), Kempton and his colleagues found that 90 percent of the residents surveyed support an offshore wind option – even if would add between $1 and $30 per month to their electric bills.
Notably, fewer than 10 percent voted for more coal or natural gas at current prices.
Delaware could become the Denmark of the U.S. on offshore wind, Kempton has long claimed. For the first time, it seems that is an actual possibility, and that its neighboring states may even follow.