U.S. Offshore Wind May Not Stay Becalmed for Long

January 3, 2024
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The Biden administration hopes to dramatically expand U.S. offshore wind, but the industry faces numerous challenges. Above, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project. Photo: Stephen Boutwell/Bureau of Ocean Energy Management via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED).

Issue Backgrounder: U.S. Offshore Wind May Not Stay Becalmed for Long

By Joseph A. Davis

In November 2023, the Danish offshore wind giant Ørsted canceled two major projects off the coast of New Jersey. It seemed like a bad omen.

Then in December, the first offshore wind turbine began sending electricity into the U.S. grid — a milestone. It seemed like a good omen.

So, whither U.S. offshore wind?

At the moment, other nations are way ahead of the United States on the alternative energy path.

The Biden administration has long been hoping to dramatically expand offshore wind form as part of the effort to expand U.S. use of renewables. It faces not only political opponents but also snafus in the supply chain, high interest rates and even issues in the courts.


The politics of offshore wind farms

On the political front, many Democrats and climate hawks are trying to support offshore wind because they see it as a key renewable energy source to replace carbon-spewing fossil fuel power plants.

Some utilities — NextEra Energy, Dominion Energy and ClearWay Energy — like it because it’s cheaper and is geographically suited.

Certainly, the Biden administration supports offshore wind enthusiastically. For instance, the Inflation Reduction Act had money for it, mostly in the form of tax breaks.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also had money for it. But because such legislation requires compromise, and because West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (who is fossil fuel-friendly) is needed for many deals, there is a catch.

The federal government, via the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, cannot issue a lease for offshore wind development unless the agency has offered at least 60 million acres for oil and gas leasing on the outer continental shelf.


Others besides fossil fuel industries

oppose offshore turbines. Many in

the fishing industry, for instance.


Others besides fossil fuel industries oppose offshore turbines. Many in the fishing industry, for instance, believe that mammoth wind turbines could disrupt traditional fishing areas and reduce their catch. Fishery groups (such as Maine lobstermen) tend to lobby against offshore wind.

Former President Donald Trump, criminal defendant and GOP presidential front-runner, does not like offshore wind at all. The story really starts back in 2006, when he bought land in Scotland to build a golf resort, then later discovered that a wind farm was to be built offshore that he felt would spoil the resort’s ocean view.

This led to a series of legal battles that Trump lost — although the resort did get built. The subsequent Trump administration was very slow to sign off on offshore wind permits.


The business of offshore wind

The price of offshore turbines has fallen 80 percent in the last 20 years. So offshore wind has the potential to make money for power developers and to save money for ratepayers — under the right conditions.

A few years ago, like at the start of the Biden administration, conditions were favorable and big developers started projects (may require subscription). Then inflation happened, raising prices for development. Then interest rates went up to fight inflation, raising the cost of capital developers needed to go forward.

Meanwhile, the pandemic had already gummed up parts of the supply chain. Delays in the leasing and permitting process, as well as court cases, played havoc with schedules. Almost nobody was making money.


Electric power can’t benefit

either customers or developers

if it cannot be delivered to customers.


To be clear, electric power can’t benefit either customers or developers if it cannot be delivered to customers. To make money, it must get onto the grid.

But in much of the U.S., the grid is a mess. Agencies that manage it are way, way behind in approving new connections for clean energy, including offshore wind. Those involved include the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, state and regional grid reliability regulators and even local agencies.

The backlog for approval of “interconnection” requests is huge and growing: a wait of about five years. At the end of the year 2020, there were 5,600 clean energy projects waiting for interconnection approval; at the end of 2022, it was over 10,000 (may require subscription).

The Biden administration (via FERC) more recently put out regulations aimed at cutting the backlog, but most see it as a partial solution at best.


Media coverage (and disinformation) a factor

Trump, who hates “windmills,” sparked a lot of media attention when he started this fall with rants about offshore wind harming whales. Or, to be precise, that offshore wind turbines (of which there are still very few) are driving whales “crazy” and “causing whales to die in numbers never seen before.” Like many things Trump says, this is not true.

Media fact-checked these statements, but in doing so they amplified and repeated them. Whales strand themselves, often in groups, quite often, and have been doing so long before offshore wind was even a glimmer in Biden’s eye.

Historically, scientists have not been able to understand the causes of most whale strandings. (Ship strikes do cause individual whale deaths, as we know from physical necropsy evidence.) Among the debunkers were BBC News, CNN and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It’s not just Trump. When Ørsted canceled its two New Jersey projects in November, the Republicans took what E&E News called a “victory lap.” It has become more than just a New Jersey GOP political thing.


Fox News in the past year has

aired some 55 segments linking

whale deaths to offshore wind.


Journalist Molly Taft recently laid out the dimensions of offshore wind politics in The New Republic. She notes that Fox News in the past year has aired some 55 segments linking whale deaths to offshore wind.

Republicans are trying to use offshore wind opposition to win elective offices elsewhere, as well. Right-wing astroturf groups and think tanks are part of the PR campaign, which has oil and gas money — and Koch money — behind it.

There is also a “not in my backyard” dimension to the pushback against offshore wind. NIMBY opposition pops up in many places, based on worries about the view, about possible harm to tourism, about property values and sometimes about fish and wildlife.

Cape Wind, one of the earliest efforts to build offshore wind, ultimately failed because of NIMBY opposition (as well as other obstacles). The often rich and influential residents of Cape Cod have clout (the Trump administration didn’t help). But other offshore wind projects in that area (like Vineyard Wind) are going forward.


Whither offshore wind?

While offshore wind still has plenty of problems — interest rates, GOPers, NIMBYs, oil lobbies, Kochs, etc. — it is not dead by a long shot.

As inflation continues to slow, interest rates will go down.

And companies are hard at work building the infrastructure needed. For example, Dominion Energy is racing to finish Charybdis, a huge vessel just for installing offshore turbines.

As the pandemic fades into history, supply-chain issues will recede too.

In the end, expect that the current jitters in the industry will be smoothed by the ongoing energy transition.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 1. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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