Can Political Headwinds Against U.S. Offshore Wind Power Help Policy Change Course?

K.K. DuVivier

March 19, 2020

This post is part of a series related to the March 12 Conference on Public Lands and Energy Transitions that was hosted by the George Washington University Law School's Environment and Energy Law Program.

Offshore wind holds huge promise as a renewable electricity source. Using existing turbine technologies, the U.S. potential is 2,058,000 megawatts (MW), enough to generate double the electricity demand of the entire United States in 2015. About 80 percent of that electricity demand is along the coasts, so getting the power to the public could prove easier than transmitting it from wind-rich midwestern states. Utilities from eight states up and down the East Coast from Maine to Virginia have committed to procuring 22,500 MW of offshore wind so far, and wind power appeared poised to take off when the Department of the Interior awarded 11 commercial offshore leases in 2016.

But now, almost four years later, the United States has yet to break ground on a single offshore wind project in federal waters. Yes, one mini-project of 30 megawatts (five turbines) went online in state waters off Block Island, Rhode Island, in December 2016. And yes, Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project is planning to go forward with 12 megawatts (two turbines) on a site leased by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy in late 2020 (if not thwarted by COVID-19 supply chain and quarantine problems). But what happened to the ambitious 800-megawatt proposal from Vineyard Wind, which was to be the first large-scale commercial offshore wind farm in U.S. waters?

Vineyard Wind has been facing strong political headwinds, much like Cape Wind before it, which was touted in 2001 to become the first U.S. wind farm until thwarted by 16 years of setbacks. Offshore wind “runs counter to [President Trump’s] attempt to revive fossil fuels in the U.S.,” and approval to go forward with the project in 2019 was delayed. Tellingly, the new schedule for government action calls for the Environmental Impact Statement to be issued 10 days after the November 2020 election.

Such delays may seriously set back the U.S. offshore wind industry, already far behind Europe’s installed offshore wind capacity of more than 18,000 megawatts. But there may be a bright side to the delays.

Developers have begun to recognize that wind projects create wakes, or turbulence, like the wakes behind boats. These wakes can seriously reduce electricity production from adjacent projects. For example, the efficiency of the Nysted wind project in the North Sea dropped 21 percent when the Rødsand II wind project was installed several miles upwind. Another study of wind projects in Texas calculated that reduced generation of about 5 percent from wakes at the downwind project resulted in annual revenue losses of more than $2 million.

In response to increased awareness of wake effects, the United Kingdom, which leads the world with about 7,000 MW of offshore wind capacity, has established a required setback of five kilometers for its offshore leases. Furthermore, according to project developers and managers, there is a push to broaden these wake setback mandates up to 10 kilometers. These buffer zones are essentially moats around a project to protect it from neighboring wind developments. While the moats may protect the investment of a particular wind developer, they render large areas that could be generating electricity into unproductive areas, where there could be energy development but there is none.

U.S. offshore wind development is in its nascence. Unlike onshore wind development, offshore involves a single landowner – the U.S. government.  The overall goal of the government should be to maximize production, efficiency, and royalty revenues on federal leases. Could the delay give us more time and incentive to rethink offshore lease requirements? Instead of resorting to defensive mandated moat setbacks, could we use this delay to explore ways that offshore wind developers can address waking issues through more collaborative solutions?  The oil and gas realm had to learn over a century how to avoid waste by developing resources through pools or units rather than focusing on what a single landowner might be able to capture. Such  pooling or unitization could perhaps help the U.S. reap some advantage from the long delay in developing its large-scale offshore wind energy resources.

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