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Why the Northeast Could Be America’s New Energy Capital

After decades, offshore wind is finally taking off. Photo: Mischa Keijser/Getty Images/Cultura RF

For decades, the strong winds blowing off the Massachusetts coast have beckoned developers with visions of wind turbines for clean, carbon-free energy, but the opposition could be just as fierce. One effort to build a wind farm five miles off the coast of Cape Cod, called Cape Wind, was scrapped after nearly 20 years of opposition from locals, including liberals such as the Kennedys.

But since then, the price of wind energy has plummeted and the political climate has changed, opening the possibility that offshore-wind farms could turn the Northeast into America’s next energy boom land. In the next five years, offshore-wind-farm developers plan to bring online 9,100 megawatts from 13 offshore-wind projects along the East Coast. The Department of Energy estimates there are about 2,000 gigawatts of potential wind energy on the country’s coasts, enough to meet the nation’s annual energy needs four times over — without emitting carbon dioxide that warms the planet.

Already, federal officials gave final approval to build the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore-wind farm a dozen miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month, called Vineyard Wind. The company won the bid for a project kicked off in 2016 when Massachusetts mandated the state’s utilities buy offshore wind power within a decade. When Vineyard Wind is operational two years from now, 62 turbines will generate about 800 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 400,000 homes, according to the company. The amount of carbon dioxide saved would be equivalent to taking 325,000 cars off the road in a year.

“Many people have called Massachusetts — and this region — the Saudi Arabia of wind,” Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s energy and environment secretary, told Intelligencer. “Once this project went out the door, projects in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and other states, were underway.”

The Trump administration frequently rallied against wind power both onshore and in the ocean, and tied up Vineyard Wind in environmental reviews and permit delays. In a sharp turnaround, the Biden administration not only approved Vineyard Wind but also announced a national goal of generating 30 gigawatts of electricity from offshore wind — equivalent to 30 coal-fired power plants — by 2030 as part of efforts to curb greenhouse emissions. If the nation were to reach that goal, it would give the U.S. the same capacity of offshore power over the next nine years that it took Europe 30 years to build.

It’s not just an environmentally friendly U.S. administration that has set up offshore wind for boom times. “We found that costs have decreased so much more in the last five years than any of the experts were predicting it to do,” said Erin Baker, professor and faculty director of the Energy Transition Initiative at the University of Massachusetts. During that period, she said, offshore-wind electricity production has quadrupled across the world. Baker and colleagues published an article in Nature predicting that the cost of wind energy will fall 50 percent between now and 2050.

“Cape Wind was over 20 cents a kilowatt hour, and Vineyard Wind is coming in at six and a half cents total an hour price point,” Theoharides said. “It’s a much more competitive price that actually saves rate payers money, which Cape Wind does not bother to do.”

A wind turbine three miles off Block Island, Rhode Island. Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The East Coast is particularly suitable for the nascent offshore-wind industry because of the combination of strong winds close to population centers, according to Baker. Nearly 40 percent of Americans live near its coasts, and the northern part of the East Coast lies on a shallow continental shelf, meaning it’s relatively easy to plant traditional fixed-bottom turbines on the seafloor, like those planned for Vineyard Wind.

On the West Coast, the continental shelf is much steeper, but next-generation floating offshore turbines could provide a solution. “They’re tethered to the ground, but they float,” Baker said. “You can put them in much deeper water.” Last month, California lawmakers advanced legislation to clear the way for a rush of floating wind farms over the next two decades.

There are environmental roadblocks that could ground the offshore-wind industry. Among the top concerns are how wind turbines would coexist with marine life and the fishing industry, with fishing groups from Maine to Florida expressing fear that large projects could render huge swaths of the ocean off-limits to their catch. “As this industry builds out to the scale that we’re envisioning, it’s very important that we ensure these projects are sharing the ocean resource in a responsible way,” Theoharides said. A long-term study last year found that 35 turbines off of England’s coast had no discernible impact on the area’s highly productive lobster fisheries.

The promise of offshore wind is great, but the amount needed to win the fight against climate change is still enormous. In Massachusetts, to reach the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the state would need to deliver an offshore-wind project of a similar size to Vineyard Wind each year, starting in 2030. “It’s really clear that we cannot get to our ambitious climate goals without wind,” Theoharides said.

Why the Northeast Could Be America’s New Energy Capital