“It is not every day you get to witness history. As someone who has spent over a decade trying to spur progress in transitioning to clean energy and advancing solutions to climate change, today was without a doubt the most exciting day of my career.”
– Catherine Bowes, Senior Manager at National Wildlife Federation, during a tour to the Block Island wind farm. Bowes summarizes the landmark progress on offshore wind power achieved in 2016 in this year-end blog post.
On December 12, the United States’ first commercial offshore wind farm came online off of Block Island, Rhode Island, and began providing electricity to the grid. In summer 2016, Massachusetts adopted the strongest offshore wind policy in the United States, requiring utilities to procure 1,600 megawatts of power over the next ten years. The National Wildlife Federation and the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative on Offshore Wind contributed to both of these victories.
The United States has lagged behind Europe in the development of offshore wind power due to concerns about siting and costs, and because of a lack of financing and government support to help launch the industry. In Europe there are currently 84 offshore wind farms either completed or under construction. A total of 3,230 turbines are installed and connected to the grid, making a cumulative total of 11,027 megawatts of power.
The Block Island project will provide 30 megawatts, but the Northeast Atlantic has tremendous wind power potential, estimated to be about 500 gigawatts–enough to power the entire region’s electricity needs. Equally important, this resource is right near major population centers where electricity demand is highest. Offshore wind power could help to move the Northeast Atlantic from being an importer of fuel to being much more self-reliant, while also supporting the creation of thousands of jobs.
The process of establishing the offshore wind site at Block Island began in 2008, when the State of Rhode Island embarked on an ocean planning process that ultimately designated an area off the coast for renewable energy development. Deepwater Wind proposed its project within that area and worked closely with stakeholders to design a project that could be successful. National Wildlife Federation and its partners were very engaged in the project, including working with the company to adjust its construction schedule to protect critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. They then worked to secure broad public support for the project and championed its many permit applications in federal, state, and local forums.
In Massachusetts, advocates realized that the largest barrier to gaining support from policymakers for offshore wind was the belief that it was “just too expensive,” so the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind conducted a study that found that offshore wind costs could decrease by as much as half in the next decade if a strong state policy were enacted. They also convened high-level forums, hosted a national conference, and took Massachusetts policymakers on a field trip to Europe to see how the industry is flourishing there. At the same time, National Wildlife Federation coordinated an effort with environmental and energy advocates, labor, and industry experts to build awareness and support for offshore wind throughout the state through media outreach, grassroots mobilization, and policymaker education. These groups’ collaborative work paid off this summer when Massachusetts adopted an energy policy that includes the largest-ever state commitment to offshore wind power, at the scale necessary to create a viable US market.
The Northeast Atlantic is at an important turning point for offshore wind power. The US Department of Interior has designated large areas off the coast for potential wind development. As of this writing, 520,000 acres have been leased off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island and 350,000 acres have been leased off the coast of New Jersey. In late 2016, the Department of Interior created another offshore wind area off the coast of New York. The auction generated unprecedented investor interest, with energy giant Statoil winning the 33-round auction, paying $42 million for the exclusive right to design and propose an offshore wind farm on 80,000 acres there.
Going forward, both National Wildlife Federation and the University of Delaware will continue to work with advocates, wind developers, and state policymakers to amplify the success stories in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and to demonstrate the broad public support for offshore wind. They will also assist in the implementation of wind policies in Massachusetts and New York to ensure that the Northeast Atlantic fulfills the opportunity to become the launching point for the offshore wind industry in the United Sates.