Biden administration launches major push to expand offshore wind power
Initiative by Commerce, Energy, Interior and Transportation departments aims to tackle climate change while boosting union jobs
By Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis March 29, 2021
“We are ready to rock-and-roll,” national climate adviser Gina McCarthy told reporters in a phone call Monday. She framed the effort as being as much about jobs as about clean energy. Offshore wind power will generate “thousands of good-paying union jobs. This is all about creating great jobs in the ocean and in our port cities and in our heartland,” she said.
The initiative represents a major stretch for the United States. The country has only one offshore wind project online at this time, generating 30 megawatts, off Rhode Island.
Administration officials said they would speed up offshore wind development by setting concrete deadlines for reviewing and approving permit applications; establish a new wind energy area in the waters between Long Island and the New Jersey coast; invest $230 million to upgrade U.S. ports; and provide $3 billion in potential loans for the offshore wind industry through the Energy Department.
The program also instructs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to share data with Orsted, a Danish offshore wind development firm, about the U.S. waters where it holds leases. NOAA will grant $1 million to help study the impact of offshore wind operations on fishing operators as well as coastal communities.
The National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium, a joint project of the Energy Department and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, will give $8 million in research grants to 15 offshore wind research and development projects.
Unlike other renewable-energy sectors, offshore wind represents one of the most labor-friendly opportunities for U.S. workers because these projects require regular operations and maintenance support. It holds significant potential for creating the kind of high-paying renewable-energy jobs promised by the administration, although the projects typically employ fewer people than major fossil-fuel pipelines.
In November, Orsted signed an agreement with the North America’s Building Trades Unions to transition some of its workers into offshore wind, and the company has provided support to train members of the Masters, Mates and Pilots union.
Investing money in ports, moreover, can provide job opportunities in disadvantaged communities along the country’s coasts.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the Biden plan an example of “clean-energy patriotism” — investing in U.S. industries and U.S. workers.
“It does reflect this whole-of-government embrace,” said Granholm, who joined the call with McCarthy, along with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “We all have a role to play.”
Raimondo, who as Rhode Island governor grew familiar with the only offshore wind farm operating along the East Coast, said that wind energy proves that environmentalism isn’t at odds with a strong economy. “That tired old view that you have to choose between meeting the needs of climate change and creating jobs is old-fashioned, failed thinking in the first place,” she said.
Although offshore wind represents the fastest-growing sector in renewable power, the country remains far behind Europe.
Europe already has 24 gigawatts of operational capacity, and Britain alone aims to have 40 gigawatts online by 2030, said Vegard Wiik Vollset, vice president of renewable energy at Rystad Energy, which analyzes the energy sector.
“Compared to Europe, the U.S. is very much in its infancy,” he said.
But wind power is poised to take off along the East Coast, with recent commitments from several states — Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia — to buy at least 25,000 megawatts of offshore electricity by 2035, according to the American Clean Power Association.
As part of Monday’s announcement, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it will start preparing an environmental-impact statement for Ocean Wind, a New Jersey project that has 1,100 megawatts of capacity.
Although Ocean Wind has the potential to power 300,000 homes, it has generated controversy among some Ocean City, N.J., residents, who complain that a chain of turbines could spoil views and hamper tourism. The project would be built about 15 miles off the coast of southern New Jersey.
Jim Donofrio, executive director of the New Jersey-based Recreational Fishing Alliance, is among the opponents. He worries about long-term impacts on fisheries and argues that too many of the jobs related to the wind farms will be temporary. “New Jersey is ground zero,” Donofrio said in an interview. “Our intention is to beat them here and make an example of what needs to be done elsewhere to keep them out.”
But advocates such as Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said widespread misinformation exists about the potential impacts of the project. A massive wind farm just offshore can provide more reliable power to the region and better air quality, not to mention thousands of jobs tied to the industry, Tittel said. “The alternative for New Jersey will be more natural gas plants and more pipelines and more fracking,” he said.
Commercial fishing operators also have raised concerns about the impact of wind farms in the Atlantic Ocean, an area critical to the seafood industry.
David Frulla, a partner at the firm Kelley, Drye and Warren who represents the trade association for the Atlantic scallop fishery, said in an interview that his clients have warned federal officials for years about the risks posed by offshore wind development plans.
For example, the southeast tip of an area the administration has identified in the New York Bight called Hudson North intersects with a scallop fishing spot, he said. The eastern perimeter of a second area, Hudson South, is just at the edge of an important area for scallops, Frulla said. Altogether, he said, the scallop catch in the New York Bight is worth tens of millions of dollars a year.
“We were saying, ‘Don’t roll the dice,’ ” Frulla said. “They rolled the dice.”
The group Frulla represents, the Fisheries Survival Fund, has a case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that challenges a decision by the Obama administration to auction offshore leases in the New York region without first doing a complete environmental analysis. In that instance, federal officials said they did not have to conduct a full analysis until a company has proposed a construction and operations plan.
By delaying the analysis by several years, Frulla said, the government made it almost impossible to block the project. “Essentially it’s a foregone conclusion,” he said. “There’s so much investment.”
Most environmental groups endorse offshore wind development, though Joel Merriman of the American Bird Conservancy said Monday that federal officials should analyze the impact on specific species. “This shows promise as a major step in combating climate change, but environmental impacts must be minimized,” he said.
President Donald Trump repeatedly disparaged wind energy, mostly referring to land-based wind turbines for killing birds and pulling down property values. But his administration held offshore lease sales in North Carolina and Massachusetts, and analyzed the Atlantic’s overall wind farm potential.
The Biden administration is moving ahead even faster. Earlier this month, the Interior Department approved an environmental review for Vineyard Wind, off the Massachusetts coast, which could become the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind project.
“For generations, we’ve put off the transition to green energy, and now we face a climate crisis,” Haaland told reporters. “It’s a crisis that doesn’t discriminate. … We must seize this tremendous opportunity.”
Darryl Fears contributed to this report.