Analysis: Biden’s big push for offshore wind

The Block Island wind offshore wind farm. Photo credit: Ionna22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 – via Wikimedia.

By Anders Lorenzen

US’s President Biden continues to drive forward his ambitious climate agenda by launching an ambitious offshore wind strategy.

While offshore wind’s role in many European countries is becoming more and more part of the energy mix, in the US it is minuscule. The Biden Administration has big plans to change that.

Job bonanza

In March, the Biden administration unveiled an offshore wind strategy that would see 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity by 2030. Part of the route to achieve this goal will be to open up new areas for development, to accelerate permits and to boost public financing for projects.

The offshore wind strategy is part of President Biden’s wider and ambitious climate plan to cut US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at a speed never before seen in the country. The US is right now the world’s second-largest emitter, but historically the largest emitter. 

Communicating his climate plan, Biden has put a big emphasis on job creation

He says that the green jobs needed to tackle the climate crisis will bring a job bonanza, and offshore wind is crucial due to the variety of different jobs and skillsets needed. In addition, as the administration plans to halt many new oil licences, those on federal land and waters, there is also the huge potential of training offshore oil workers to be offshore wind power workers.

Up until now, the US’s entry into the offshore wind market has been woeful and painfully slow, not helped by former President Donald Trump, who had done everything to slow down the industry, due to his distaste for wind power. 

Despite companies who specialise in offshore wind such as the Danish offshore wind giant Orsted which owns most of the European offshore wind capacity, and has built a presence in the US, the country has just two small offshore wind facilities to date.  One is the 30 megawatts (MW) Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island and the other a two-turbine pilot project off the coast of Virginia.   

Powering 10 million homes

The Biden Administration says that the 30 GW target will be enough to power 10 million homes and will cut 78 million metric tonnes of CO2 per year. The US east coast is set to be the first area destined for offshore wind development, and the first step is to open a new offshore wind development zone in the New York Bight.  This is an area off the densely populated coast between Long Island, New York and New Jersey – later an auction will be held there to distribute permits.

The Biden Administration is forecasting that the industry will employ 44,000 persons directly by 2030 with an additional 33,000 support jobs. Many of those jobs will be at factories that will produce the blades, towers and other components for the massive offshore wind turbines, and also at shipyards where the specialised equipment needed to install them will be constructed. As a result, the administration predicts that the US could see post-upgrade investments related to offshore wind of more than $500 million.

Fast-tracking the process

There is little time to waste, and the administration has said they would speed up project permits and environmental reviews as well as providing $3 billion in public financing through the Department of Energy (DOE)  

Secretary of Energy, Jennifer M. Granholm said. “This offshore wind goal is proof of our commitment to using American ingenuity and might to invest in our nation, advance our own energy security, and combat the climate crisis. DOE is going to marshal every resource we have to get as many American companies, using as many sheets of American steel, employing as many American workers as possible in offshore wind energy—driving economic growth from coast to coast,” 

However, this fast-track approach could give the Biden Administration problems, and already Republicans are opposed to it. In addition, it has also been met with scepticism by a fishing industry group who is not happy that only $1 million has been pledged for research into the effects of offshore wind on fisheries. The industry worries that the turbines would interfere with fishing routes and impact commercial species. Some environmental groups might also not be best pleased about the fast-tracking of environmental impact reviews.

In the US there are currently 20 GW of offshore wind projects in various stages of development, however, this pales in comparison with Europe which has more than 20 GW installed capacity and is planning to expand ten-fold by 2050.

Apart from Orsted, it’s other European companies such as Norway’s Equinor, Denmark’s Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, Avangrid a subsidy of Spain’s Iberdrola, that are at the heart of building up the US offshore wind industry. 

And herein lies Biden’s challenge – these companies have the offshore wind industry experience and are therefore crucial in this transition, but this will subsequently mean that a lot of jobs will go to European workers, and it might mean not as many American jobs will be created as President Biden is promising. One just has to look at the UK, Europe’s offshore wind leader, where a lot of jobs still go to Danish and German workers despite the UK’s effort to build a strong offshore wind industry in the country.

Denmark built the world’s first offshore wind farm in 1992 and since then Orsted, which was then mainly an oil and gas company, has ditched fossil fuels to be almost 100% focused on offshore wind development.

With 20 GW in planning or development the US should soon become a player in the offshore wind industry, but how they will fare against Europe and China who are marching forward is still an open question. 

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