The Challenges and Potential of Offshore Wind Energy in the United States

Offshore wind energy has become a hot-button issue in the United States, but the country still lags behind Europe and China in terms of clean wind energy capacity. President Joe Biden has set a goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030, but the industry has faced years of delays and obstacles.

One of the biggest challenges facing the US offshore wind industry is the economic headwinds of inflation and rising interest rates. These factors have hit the industry hard and have caused delays in project development. Additionally, there have been concerns raised about the impact of offshore wind farms on whale strandings and deaths. However, scientists have found no evidence to support this connection.

Despite these challenges, the Biden administration has approved three commercial-scale offshore wind projects and is currently reviewing 16 more. However, some projects have hit pause due to high building costs, leading developers to rebid next year. The industry faces a chicken and egg problem – it requires a specialized and technical supply chain, ports, and massive ships to build and install turbines in the ocean, but it also needs projects to be approved to kickstart that supply chain.

In the US, companies are not only trying to build offshore wind turbines but also an entire industry that is still in its early stages. There have been previous attempts to build offshore wind farms, such as the Cape Wind project off the coast of Cape Cod, but it was eventually killed due to opposition from wealthy local homeowners. The only commercially-sized offshore wind farm in the US is the 5-turbine Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island.

Compared to onshore wind and solar, offshore wind is significantly lagging behind in terms of installed capacity. While there are 136 gigawatts of onshore wind capacity and an estimated 140 gigawatts of solar capacity in the US by the end of this year, offshore wind only has a capacity of 42 megawatts. The specialized equipment required for offshore wind projects and the underdeveloped infrastructure have contributed to this disparity.

One of the major factors impacting the offshore wind industry is the rising costs of wind turbines. Prices of wind turbines rose by 30% in 2021, which has affected current projects as there is usually a two-year gap between ordering turbines and their installation. Additionally, assembling turbines in the ocean and laying power cables back to shore require specialized ships and infrastructure. The Jones Act, a century-old law, also imposes strict regulations on US-made and crewed ships moving cargo like turbines, further complicating the industry.

Despite the challenges, the potential for offshore wind energy in the US is immense. The Biden administration’s goals and investment in the industry show a strong commitment to its development. With the right infrastructure, supply chain, and supportive policies, the US could catch up to Europe and China in offshore wind capacity, creating jobs and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. However, there is still a long way to go to make offshore wind a significant part of the US energy mix.

Daniel Hall