Considered by many to be a banner year in the progress of offshore wind, 2021 saw 21,100 megawatts of offshore wind connection to the grid worldwide. That’s three times more than in 2020, setting an all-time record for the offshore wind industry.
And how does North America measure up as far as progress toward expanding offshore wind resources? According to YaleEnvironment360, a publication of The Yale School of the Environment, developers are currently investing most heavily in the East Coast because of its reliable supply of wind and proximity to populous markets.
A 2016 report from the US Department of Energy found that under an aggressive development scenario, offshore wind could provide 14% of the electricity consumed in the US by 2050. Being able to achieve this goal would translate to a 1.8% reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions, and the decreases in ambient nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter would result in a savings of $2 billion in economic losses and healthcare costs.
So what are today’s biggest challenges to the growth of offshore wind resources in North America—and what’s next as look toward 2050?
Overcoming infrastructure, industry and overhead
The offshore wind energy movement in North America has ramped up considerably in the last two years. Less than 10 wind turbines are installed in US waters now. By 2030, there could be thousands.
In March 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration announced a goal of deploying 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030—a dramatic increase from the 42 megawatts of offshore wind currently operating in the US. But as always, there are roadblocks to navigate.
The hurdles for offshore wind are numerous and come from industry stakeholders, logistics concerns, infrastructure challenges, and more. Commercial fishers have emerged as some of the strongest opposition to offshore wind development, expressing concerns that wind farms will inhibit the ability to fish in the area, make historical fishing grounds unavailable, and cause conflict among competing fishers.
The lack of accessible ports is another concern. Few ports are designed to handle the load volume and bridge clearance required for offshore wind development, which limits development options considerably.
Our supply chain for materials, installation vessels and labor is also serving as an impediment to achieving our offshore wind goals in North America. Unfortunately, our aggressive goals cannot be met until we have a more robust domestic supply chain in place. Until the supply chain gap in North America is resolved, offshore wind growth will be limited.
Even if all the aforementioned challenges are resolved, interconnection queues, transmission network upgrade projects, and maintenance overhead can still delay offshore wind expansion in North America. Long, inefficient grid connection processes are creating a bottleneck for offshore wind developers, and even after a project is approved for interconnection, there’s still the challenge of installing significant offshore infrastructure and a network of underwater/underground cable to transmit to the onshore grid.
As wind turbines grow in size and power, the prices have also declined from $1,800/kW in 2008 to $770-$850 per kW now. Still, the turbine represents 23% of the overall LCOE (levelized cost of energy) whereas Operations & Maintenance is over 33% of the cost.
There has also been pushback on offshore wind farms from local residents and environmental groups. In many areas targeted for offshore wind development, local communities have come together to protest offshore wind projects through petitions and lawsuits, citing concerns about property values, underground high voltage cables, the loss of local sailing and watersports, and the potential to cause other environmental problems. Birds colliding with wind turbines are the most common environmental issue mentioned. The American Bird Conservancy has estimated that 1.17 million birds are killed by wind turbines each year, but in better news, scientists in Norway have found that painting just one of the three blades on a wind turbine black, can reduce avian deaths by 72%.
What’s next for offshore wind in North America?
At the time of this writing, the United States currently has only two small projects in operation, with seven turbines in total. The International Renewable Agency (IRENA) expects the offshore market to grow significantly over the next three decades, with the total installed offshore wind capacity rising nearly ten-fold from just 23,000 megawatts in 2018 to 228,000 megawatts in 2030 and near 1, 000,000 megawatts in 2050
Based in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Vineyard Wind is currently building the nation’s first utility-scale offshore wind energy project. Situated over 15 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, the Vineyard 1 project is anticipated to generate renewable energy for more than 400,000 homes and businesses, reducing carbon emissions in the region by over 1.6 million tons per year.
Another priority will be ensuring availability of the neodymium magnets used in offshore wind. The demand created by our aggressive offshore wind strategies is expected to total more than 15.5 Gg (15.5 kt) of neodymium by 2050.
Moving forward, offshore wind energy deployment is expected to be a significant part of the North American decarbonization strategy. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed by the US Senate in August 2022, includes significant investments in offshore wind development and transmission projects related to this energy infrastructure, including interconnections.
The US government has also just announced new actions to expand offshore wind including initiatives on floating offshore wind to deploy 15,000 megawatts, power five million homes and lower costs 70% by 2035.