There has been remarkable progress in recent months related to the development of utility-scale offshore wind projects in the United States due to the states and federal government reaching alignment.
The stars are aligning for the birth of a full-fledged offshore wind industry in the northeastern United States, where ocean winds are strong and the shallow depth is ideal for fixed-bottom turbines. While offshore wind farms have been operating across Europe for decades, the tortuous 10+ year path of the Cape Wind project off of Massachusetts caused many to wonder when America would have its first utility-scale offshore farm. The short answer is that offshore wind is coming in a hurry.
Offshore wind development in the US requires both federal- and state-level action. The federal government controls the outer continental shelf starting three nautical miles from shore, and through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal government decides which ocean areas should be made available for development and leads the required environmental review. The states competitively procure offshore wind energy from developers that control federal lease areas, and permit each project’s export cable where it runs through state waters and connects to the onshore grid. The federal permitting is extremely complex, given that about a dozen agencies are involved. Wind farms can involve the installation of over 100 turbines the size of the Chrysler Building, and the projects can be extremely controversial.
Ten years from now, expect to see floating wind farms 20 to 30 miles from the California, Oregon, and Washington shorelines – as well as in the deeper areas off of the East Coast.”
The Obama administration’s BOEM formulated a vision for offshore development and auctioned nearly a dozen lease areas, but most northeastern states were not ready to jump in with solicitations. Although the Trump administration did little to advance offshore wind, the northeastern states’ aspirations had matured into solicitations and ambitious renewable energy targets. Today, the Biden administration has a goal of 30 gigawatts of installed offshore wind energy by 2030; many northeastern states have their own procurement goals, the largest being New York’s mandate for 9 gigawatts by 2035. With the states and the federal government now fully aligned on rapidly developing utility-scale offshore projects, the last several months have seen astonishing progress.
Between late March and early July 2021 alone, BOEM issued six Notices of Intent (NOIs) to prepare environmental impact statements for proposed East Coast offshore wind projects:
Together, these projects will power millions of homes.
There is programmatic momentum as well. On May 25, BOEM announced that by 2022 it will lease some 400 square miles of ocean off of California and expects over 4.5 gigawatts of offshore wind development there. Although that region has strong winds, traditional fixed-bottom turbines cannot be used because the outer continental shelf is so deep there. Instead, floating turbines – a technology that only recently became commercially viable – will be used offshore of the West Coast. Ten years from now, expect to see floating wind farms 20 to 30 miles from the California, Oregon, and Washington shorelines – as well as in the deeper areas off of the East Coast.
Finally, on June 14, BOEM issued its long-awaited Proposed Sale Notice announcing eight new potential lease areas in the New York Bight that BOEM plans to auction off in late 2021 or early 2022. Each lease area will be approximately 80,000 acres. So far, 11 offshore wind developers – including many of the largest fossil-fuel companies in the world – are prequalified to participate in the upcoming auction. BOEM’s Proposed Sale Notice flags the federal government’s interest in capping each offshore wind developer to win only one or two leases in order to increase competition and facilitate development of a robust US supply chain.
Dan Chorost is an Environmental Partner at the law firm of Sive, Paget & Riesel in New York City. Dan advises several clients in the offshore wind industry, including Equinor Wind US on the permitting and environmental review for the Empire Wind 1, Empire Wind 2, and Beacon Wind 1 offshore wind projects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.