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Economy

Offshore Wind Is in Trouble — And That Might Be Okay (For Now)

Does America actually need the renewable energy source to hit its decarbonization goals by 2030?

A wind turbine.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The Biden administration wants 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity by the end of the decade and East Coast states have taken it upon themselves to do much of the work to get there. But as wind projects up and down the East Coast face problems — developers threatening to pull the plug unless they get more subsidies, higher costs, supply chain issues, local opposition, and possibly astroturfed concerns about whales — experts have questioned whether this goal can really be hit.

But it may not even be necessary to substantially decarbonize the American economy — or at least not by 2030.

The recent stream of news about offshore wind has been bad. Developers up and down the East Coast have been asking states for more money in order to continue deals they struck years ago, citing higher costs throughout the supply chain. A recent auction for offshore wind rights in the Gulf of Mexico was almost a total flop, with only two companies participating in the bidding.

The Danish wind developer Orsted said a few weeks ago that three of its U.S. offshore wind projects were “adversely impacted by a handful of supplier delays” and that “there is a continuously increasing risk in these suppliers’ ability to deliver on their commitments and contracted schedules,” adding up to a lengthening timeline and increased costs that could lead to billions of dollars of write-offs.

The company’s chief executive Mads Nipper, who is in a standoff with the Biden administration over its eligibility for further subsidies, has said they are willing to “walk away” from wind projects. The company said that its Ocean Wind 1 project, planned for the New Jersey coast, would be delayed from 2025 to 2026.

So what happens if offshore wind doesn’t materialize at the level once expected?

There are any number of reports and projections showing how the United States can transition to 100% carbon-free electricity and even a whole economy that contributes net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and they’re typically less optimistic about offshore wind than the Biden administration. Princeton’s Net-Zero America Project, for instance, forecast offshore wind capacity would be between three and 10 gigawatts by 2030 in five scenarios for reaching zero emissions by midcentury. It largely sees additional onshore wind and solar making up the difference.

In fact, the government’s own forecasts don’t really envision the U.S. hitting the 30 gigawatt figure either. The National Renewable Energy Lab’s analysis of how to reach 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035, which is the Biden administration’s nominal goal, projects that in the “mid-range” case, offshore wind production would hit 24 gigawatts by 2030. Both the Net-Zero Project and the NREL foresee massive offshore wind installation, just on a slower timeline than the administration.

“The 30 GW by 2030 offshore wind goal is definitely still within striking distance, thanks in part to investments like the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law , as well as state-level policies,” Jocelyn Brown-Saracino, the Department of Energy's Wind Energy Lead, said in an emailed statement. “The actual size and speed of U.S. offshore wind build-out will depend on continued regulatory efficiency, the availability of installation vessels and port infrastructure, proactive onshore and offshore grid planning and upgrades, the successful commercialization of 15-MW wind turbine platforms, and sustained market demand. DOE and other federal agencies are working on a number of initiatives to accelerate efforts in these areas.”

And, at least until we build the grid of our dreams, eastern seaboard states need to get carbon-free energy from somewhere. They have collectively set goals for some 50 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity over the coming decades. In the Northeast especially, the desire for large amounts of offshore wind generation reflects a combination of ambition to decarbonize the states’ electricity systems and lack of other politically palatable options. New York, for instance, shut down its Indian Point nuclear power plant in 2021, taking 2,000 megawatts of carbon-free power off the grid, with the promise that offshore wind would soon replace it. It hasn’t yet.

Those states are not in the wind corridor that is the Great Plains or the sunny expanse of the Southwest. While residential and business solar has been more widespread than anticipated in New England, offshore wind has consistently been the energy source that was promised from the New York Bight to the Gulf of Maine.

And it makes sense why. The East Coast’s population centers are, well, near the coast, meaning the Atlantic’s shallow and windy waters an attractive option for energy development. And by building offshore, these states can avoid grueling fights over land use that accompany wind farm developments in rural areas far from where most of the states’ residents actually live. Offshore wind can also complement solar, as winds can pick up in the afternoon and evening as solar power falls off.

This has all added up to an odd situation, where the country’s immediate goals for decarbonization may actually be overserved by ambitious development plans that, as of now, seem to be imperiled.

According to the Department of Energy, over 50 gigawatts of offshore wind is in the so-called pipeline, but there are only a few projects that have been approved or are under construction.

“The Biden-Harris administration is using every legally available tool to advance American offshore wind opportunities and achieve the goal of 30 GW by 2030, including by approving the nation’s first major offshore wind projects and leveraging historic resources from the President’s Investing in America agenda to support offshore wind infrastructure and supply chain buildout,” White House spokesperson Michael Kikuawa said in an email when asked about the 30 gigawatt target.

BloombergNEF recently marked down its own projection for offshore wind capacity by the end of decade to just over 23 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030.

In New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, out of 13 gigawatts of planned offshore wind, developers for 10 gigawatts of it are seeking to get their contracts amended.

“Never say never,” Allegra Dawes, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, responded when I asked if these state targets — or the national target — were plausible. “I wouldn’t say they’re impossible. They’re highly unlikely at state level and federal level.”

In those four states, which Dawes said were the furthest along in their planning (the Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts is actually under construction), the current wrangling over contracts could end up delaying everything.

“Even if that means those projects don’t get cancelled, there will be significant delays,” Dawes told me. “Those delays add up. We’re talking about a short amount of time until 2030 and that pushes back the entire timeline.”

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Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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