What's on the Horizon? Offshore Wind

Published Jan 4, 2022

Energy analyst John Rogers is back with exciting developments in the offshore wind industry.

In this episode

Colleen and John talk about

  • the Biden administration's commitment to offshore wind and the infrastructure needed to make offshore wind a reality
  • the many different types of jobs that will be created as offshore wind ramps up
  • the opportunity to make an equitable transition to clean energy
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:26)
Intro (0:26-1:28)
Interview p1 (1:28-16:00)
Break (16:00-17:22)
Interview p2 (17:22-23:44)
Throw (23:44-24:30)
Segment (24:30-27:44)
Outro (27:44-29:00)


Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: The beginning of a new year can be a mixed bag for all sorts of reasons these days. But on this episode of the podcast I am at home looking out at the ocean with hope for the future. And the future of how energy is produced in our country. Off-shore wind is the rookie player to look out for in this season of renewable energy, while land-based wind and solar energy have just had their best years ever!

What’s on the horizon for wind energy is just exactly that… expanding horizons! Both national and state governments are embracing this clean energy technology by putting their money where their mouths are through major investments.

Investments in wind energy are not just moving towards a clean energy future, but an equitable, pro-labor future as well.

On this episode of the podcast, I am joined by John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, to learn more about all this promising news in the world of off-shore wind energy.

Colleen: John, welcome back to the podcast.

John: Great to be with you, Colleen.

Colleen: Yeah. I really appreciate your commitment to keeping us up to date on what's happening in the different clean energy sectors. I mean, there's a lot of exciting news on the solar front and wind, not just offshore wind, but today, I really want to dive into the shores of the East and West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. So, John, what's the good word on wind?

John: I'm right there with you, Colleen. I will say solar and land-based wind had their best years ever in the U.S. in 2020, and 2021 is looking really strong. And each of those is worth podcast of their own. I don't want anybody to think I'm showing favoritism here. But I think what's really exciting about offshore wind, for so many of us, is the newness of it. You know, it's sort of like as...we're getting in on the ground floor together with this conversation. We do have a lot of chances to shape how it rolls out. I think it's the promise, it's the power, it's the potential there that keeps me coming back to you with more about offshore wind.

Colleen: So what's on the horizon?

John: That's a fascinating choice of words, Colleen, because a lot of what's going on is beyond the horizon, but it's still incredibly exciting. Maybe, if we're talking about U.S. offshore wind, maybe the place to start is at the top, the big picture, the national scale. The Biden administration has embraced offshore wind fully. So in March, the administration put out as part of its push for climate action and clean energy, put forth a 30,000-megawatt goal by 2030. That is, they're saying, "We want 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind deployed by 2030." So not just on the drawing board, not just in the planning stages, not just under construction, but actually deployed. We're talking billions of dollars of investment per year. We're talking 10s of 1000s of people working in offshore wind by 2030, and 10s of 1000s of people working in the communities to support that activity. We're talking enough electricity generated for the equivalent of 10 million households. I'm talking 10s of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide basically not being emitted by other power sources because of offshore wind. So that's pretty neat.

The next neat part is that the administration, the Biden administration is backing it up with action. So, they're investing...finding different ways of investing in offshore wind. One of those is thinking about more leases. They had a recent announcement about where they're going to explore opening up leases for offshore wind developers to put their turbines. So some of those are near existing ones. Some of those are in new areas. So, if you look, for example, the New York Bight, which is south of Long Island or off of New Jersey, you look in the Mid-Atlantic Coast, but also areas like off of Maine, in the Gulf of Maine off the West Coast in the Gulf of Mexico. So these are all areas that the administration has recently said they'll be exploring and looking to sort of get ready through a very public process, but see if there's potential for leasing out those areas for offshore wind development.

Colleen: What is the rough timeframe for getting from exploring to actual production?

John: Yeah. A terrific question. We don't know because this is so new, but they've laid out a pretty aggressive timeline for those new lease areas. And, you know, they've got all the steps sketched out. And again, that starts with engaging the public on thinking about what the issues are in a particular area, and then defining the areas and testing that, and then putting it out to bid. And that's just the starting point, right? You've got then the developers. Some developer has to be the winning bidder on that, and then has to pull all the pieces together, go through the whole permitting process, get the money, get the equipment, get not just the parts to build the turbines, and the towers, and the foundations, and all, but the equipment, the specialized ships to put the equipment in. So there's a lot that needs to come together, but the administration is committed to it.

The recent infrastructure bill did have some money for electric transmission, some of which will benefit offshore winds. We're hoping the Congress will be doing a lot more there. And we're certainly watching what states are doing. They're continuing to step up. They've been such drivers of demand for offshore wind. I'll give you just one example, and that's California, in September, really opened up a new front for offshore wind with legislation that requires the state's energy commission to develop a strategic plan for bringing offshore wind into the state's push for 100% carbon-free electricity. So they're recognizing that potential. They're recognizing what offshore wind might be able to do for them as they are moving to 100% carbon-free electricity. And this is a really important next step.

Colleen: So, John, the last time you're on the podcast, you were pretty jazzed about the 13-megawatt turbine. I believe it was one turbine can power a home for a day in seven seconds. So, has technology improved? Are we down to six or five seconds yet?

John: Wow, you're asking a lot there. But fortunately, I've got something for you, yeah, actually, though. I was talking then about 13-megawatt wind turbines. Since then, we've seen projects commit to 14 megawatts. We've now seen a project off of New York that will be using 15-megawatt wind turbines. And what they say...the manufacturer of that one says that each rotation of that turbine, each rotation will be capable of powering a home in New York for about one and a half days. So I did the math and said, well, if you look at 15 megawatts just going full out, and you think about what an average New York house uses, 602 kilowatt-hours a month, a 15-megawatt turbine, that's going to be 4.75 seconds. So, there are a whole lot of caveats in there. Obviously, you got to get the power from the turbine to the home. You've got to power it for 24 hours, not just 5 seconds. You've got to supply power throughout the day. But that gives you a sense of the scale of these turbines that in under five seconds, one of these offshore wind turbines will generate enough to power your home for a day.

Colleen: That's amazing.

John: Yeah. I don't think the industry is stopping there. Eventually, they'll bump up against some technical limits, but at this point, I think we're seeing...you know, there are a lot of advantages to going bigger. You can have more power from fewer turbines, which means fewer foundations means maybe you can have them use less area for generating the same amount of power. So, there's certainly some interest in developing larger and larger turbines, but just even where we've gotten now is amazing.

Colleen: What other innovations are you seeing on the technology front?

John: Well, I'll tell you, one we'll be looking at...we're paying a lot of attention to is floating offshore wind turbines because...And I mentioned those new lease areas that the administration is going to be exploring. If you're off the West Coast, or if you're in the Gulf of Maine, the Outer Continental Shelf, so in other words, the land under the water drops off really quickly, so that means deeper water, which means you're going to have to use floating wind turbines, instead of the ones we've had so far, the ones that are planned...are embedded in the seafloor. This is going to be floating. Now, there are some projects in...you know, there's one that's been off Scotland for the last couple years. There are other projects planned in Europe and elsewhere in the world. But I think that's really a technology to watch, again, because we're going to need it if we want to supply some of these areas, if we want to tap the potential off some pieces of our shores.

I'll add that it's really interesting to look at where the investment dollars are going. There's an effort called the National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium, which is a collaboration among states and the federal government and industry. And they've made dozens of investments for reducing costs and reducing risks around offshore wind. And this is stuff like structures. So are they going to be fixed bottom or floating? This is the electrical systems. This is thinking about how do you do operations and maintenance when you're out in the middle of an ocean, all these things. And I think the industry, and we are certainly going to continue to look for cost savings wherever they can be found. So I think this type of innovation is really neat.

Colleen: So one development I was excited to read about is the New Jersey Wind Port. And what's exciting to me about that is it seems to signal a serious investment in wind power. Am I reading that right?

John: You are. And that one way, that was in September, I think, when they broke ground on the project, and that'll be the first port designed specifically with offshore wind in mind. And you have, you certainly have states that are upgrading their port infrastructure. We have here in Massachusetts, we have an offshore wind terminal. You see Connecticut making upgrades to a key port there. You're seeing other places where they're thinking about what's it going to take to be sort of the land-based piece of what offshore wind is going to accomplish. So, how do you have the staging areas that can handle the blades that are more than 100 meters long? How do you handle the incredibly heavy nacelles, which are the fat part up on top that the blades connect to the tower pieces? All those pieces. You gotta have the right kind of land-based infrastructure to make that work, and states are really thinking about that. So you mentioned New Jersey. In Massachusetts, the Legislature and the Governor are moving toward allocating millions of dollars from federal economic stimulus or recovery money to offshore wind infrastructure. So I think states are really gearing up to be an active and a central part of offshore wind in their regions.

Colleen: The parts for the wind turbines that we have now mostly come from overseas. Do we manufacture the turbine parts here in the U.S.?

John: Not for offshore wind, certainly, because we're early stages there. What we're seeing, and I think what we'll see is that it will roll out their parts. So if you look at foundations, the foundations for the very first offshore wind turbines installed five years ago off of Rhode Island came from Louisiana. So there you're looking at lots of experience with doing energy installations in the marine environment in the Gulf Coast, and for oil and gas in that case, but you're tapping that expertise to provide the foundations for offshore wind. And you'll see pieces like that. So it might be the wiring, it might be the tower sections before you get to the nacelle and the blades and other parts. That said, there was a really exciting announcement recently in Virginia, where a company...a leading manufacturer of offshore wind has committed to putting a blade factory there, a wind turbine blade factory. And that's not a coincidence. Virginia has made one of the strongest commitments to offshore wind, and there's a project that's under development, or certainly in the planning stages for off of Virginia. And so these manufacturers are going to look to see what states are showing that kind of commitment, and that's where they're going to want to set up. So they're thinking about what states they're in, what regions they'll be able to supply, and how they can be a big piece of what happens with offshore wind as it ramps up in the U.S.

Colleen: Wind turbines, offshore wind, it's going to help enormously with decreasing heat-trapping emissions. But are there other benefits that offshore wind will bring?

John: Yes, definitely, Colleen. One of the things we think about when we think about offshore wind, we're certainly thinking about investments and where those dollars are going to flow and to whom. We're certainly thinking about the 10s of 1000s of people that the offshore wind industry looks positioned to be employing over the next decade. Certainly, thinking about the clean electricity. We also think a lot about the equity dimensions of offshore wind and how we do this right. And I guess I might mention a few different ways. One is thinking about how it gets decided where the turbines might go, so how the lease areas...the offshore wind lease areas get defined. What projects get approved and under what conditions? You know, is it a public process? What kind of attention are they paying to engaging in those conversations, traditionally marginalized people and communities, so Native Americans--we know that the oil and gas industry has gotten it wrong, really wrong so much of the time with regard to Native American communities. Offshore wind can do better.

We also think about environmental justice communities, which for so many decades have really borne the effects of how we make and use electricity. So I think the process... the decision-making processes, and that extends not just to where the turbines go, but where the rest of the infrastructure ends up. You know, if you picture a project offshore, you've then got a cable, a transmission cable, a transmission line, that brings that power to land where those cables land, where the substations end up, how those decisions get made. This also comes back to, you know, your question about port infrastructure. As we're ramping up these ports, are we thinking about the pollution effects? Are we think about ways of dealing with those pollution effects? So port electrification, for example, just in general, sustainable port infrastructure because those ports are in communities or near communities, and those communities have likely borne more than their fair share of pollution. And maybe I'd add who's doing the work when it comes to making offshore wind happen? What attention gets paid to making sure that the workforce represents us, represents the population as a whole, maybe gets us out of historical ruts in terms of labor and race, thinking about diversity of the workforce, thinking about the labor standards? Unions are very active in the discussions already. There are agreements with some early projects already in place. I think we're going to want to see a lot more of that. Maybe also how the costs and benefits of the project and the development get allocated. So, how are we seeing who is to the extent that we're in investing in these...investing public dollars in getting this off the ground? Where's that coming from? Who's bearing that? But then also, how are those benefits flowing with equity in mind?

Colleen: What types of jobs will be created in the offshore wind industry?

John: Yeah. That's a great question. I think it sort of runs the gamut. If you think about project management and project development, certainly, there's early stuff that needs to happen. But I think where you'll see the bulk of this is in the manufacturing, the deployment, the operations, the maintenance. So, as we get to the point of ramping up and doing more and more manufacturing closer to where these projects are going to be, I think you'll see a tremendous effect from that. But also, even in the early stages, just putting up those turbines, installing them. That takes a whole lot of people, so, you know, the pipefitters, you know, the people who are going to be welding, the electricians, all kinds of folks who are involved in this. It's sort of the technical people, the tradespeople. It's the people who are thinking about environmental dimensions of this and making sure we get that right. It starts with the people who are scanning the seabed and looking at where we're actually going to locate these turbines. So I think you'll see all kinds of sort of direct effects, direct job creation. And then, again, all those communities where these activities...the land-based parts of these activities are taking place, everybody from the restaurant, the hotel, and the people who work in the ports. All those different pieces I think will be an important piece of the job creation story for offshore wind.

Colleen: So the jobs you are mentioning, are they likely to be well-paying union jobs?

John: That's right, a lot of these, and certainly, that's the expectation, and you're seeing that expectation be sort of codified in the project labor agreements, the types of things we're already seeing moving into place. And I think it'll be really important to keep an eye on that, but that's certainly the expectation.

Colleen: So we're committed to making a transition to clean, renewable energy, an equitable one. What are some of the specific challenges in the wind industry? And how do we ensure an equitable transition to this super awesome, vibrant technology?

John: Terrific question. I guess the way I think about it is what are the opportunities to get this right this time around? You know, there are a lot of technologies where we've sort of moved forward, certainly over the last 150 years move forward, and then sort of after the fact said, "Oh, wait. How do we clean up our mess?" And that's certainly not what we want with clean energy, and it's not what we want with offshore wind in particular. I might mention a few different ways that we can get equity right or righter. One is maybe thinking about how it gets decided where the turbines might go, so how the lease areas get defined, what projects get approved. You know, how public is that process? What are the opportunities that people have to provide input and really be heard and shape decisions there? And maybe with particular attention to engaging people in communities that have been traditionally marginalized. Offshore wind can do better. Engaging environmental justice communities. Again, for so many decades, they've borne the effects of how we make and use electricity. We can do better than that. So that's one piece is thinking about the turbines. That also applies to where the rest of the infrastructure ends up. You know, if you picture a project is out at sea, and then you've got this transmission line, the cables have to come to land somewhere, so where those cables land, where the substations end up, how those decisions get made.

And it's really interesting. There's one project that's been engaging with the community in one of the boroughs in New York City. And I think the community is actively trying to shape that and welcome it because I think they see potential, certainly job employment potential in that. But, you know, continuing pushing to making sure those decisions get made correctly and publicly. That would extend to the port infrastructure, so thinking about how...if we're ramping up activities in a port to make it a staging area for offshore wind, how do we make sure that that's not adding to the pollution burden, that may be, yes, at the same time, there's a push for electrification, which was where we know ports are going to have to head?

Colleen: Good point. Just because the port is being built or retrofitted to support clean wind technology doesn't necessarily mean that the port will be using clean energy.

John: That's right. And electrification certainly is going to be a big piece of that, you know, just as it is across our transportation sector. I'd say with...as we think about equity, so thinking not just about the equipment and where it's all going to go and how those decisions get made, but also who's going to be doing the work. So, what kind of attention is getting paid to making sure that the workforce represents all of us, that we're not stuck in the historical ruts that we get into with labor and race, that we're thinking about the diversity of the workforce. We're thinking about labor standards. Unions are very active in the discussions with some of these projects, already have agreements in place with some of the early projects. That's really important. And then maybe I'd add how costs and benefits get allocated. We know we're going to be investing upfront in these technologies, you know, including public dollars, in some cases. How do we make sure that that happens as equitably as possible, and that the benefits that come out of that and out of the offshore wind projects get spread as equitably as possible? Colleen: Right. Well, John, is there anything we haven't touched on that you'd like to tell us about?

John: I guess I would just say offshore wind is an area worth watching, again, not to the exclusion of other clean energy sources, because I think there's a lot of exciting stuff going on out there. This is, it's a time of such rapid development and growth at all levels, so in terms of government, in terms of industry, in terms of the public's engagement, in terms of our understanding, in terms of the technology. Those are all going to be coming together. And you and I will soon be talking about turbines in the water. And in fact, we just broke ground or the developer just broke ground for the construction of what will be the first large-scale offshore wind turbine in the United States so that it is underway. So, all kinds of stuff to watch for. Stay tuned.

Colleen: Well, I'm excited to get you back on the podcast when we have some stuff underway, that would be very exciting. John, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

John: Always great to be here, Colleen. Thanks very much.

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