America just entered a new era for renewable energy

An offshore wind farm in the UK. The US continues to lag far behind Europe and China on this powerful source of renewable energy.
An offshore wind farm in the UK. The US continues to lag far behind Europe and China on this powerful source of renewable energy.
Image: REUTERS/Phil Noble/File Photo
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Over the last two decades, the US has seen incredible growth in renewable energy: Roughly a 12,000% increase in the installed capacity of solar panels and 4,800% for onshore wind turbines. But offshore wind has always lagged behind, even as China and European countries forged ahead with booming offshore wind industries. As of 2020, the US was home to just 0.1% of global offshore wind, split between two tiny farms off the coasts of Virginia and Rhode Island, according to data from the Global Wind Energy Council, a trade group.

That is poised to change in the next few years, now that the Biden administration has signed off on the country’s first major offshore wind farm, to be situated about 12 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. On May 11, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued a final approval for Vineyard Wind, an 800-megawatt, $2.8 billion joint venture between the US utility Avangrid, a subsidiary of Spanish renewable energy giant Iberdrola, and the Danish investment firm Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners that is scheduled to begin construction this year and send electrons to the New England grid by 2023.

The project still leaves the US far behind its peers, and well off from president Joe Biden’s goal, announced in March, to see 30 gigawatts of offshore wind installed by 2030. But it puts the US on the offshore wind map for the first time, and should open the door for what the White House has said could become a $12 billion domestic industry around the manufacture and installation of offshore wind turbines, which until now have been entirely imported from Europe (the Vineyard Wind turbines will be produced by GE, also in Europe).

An individual offshore wind farm can produce far more energy than most onshore wind or solar installations; in terms of megawatts, the Vineyard wind farm will be larger than all but the three largest onshore wind farms in the US. But the industry has lagged in the US because of an onerous permitting process, high costs relative to other sources of wholesale electricity, and an obscure law from 1920 called the Jones Act that requires goods moved between US ports to be transported on US-flagged vessels (most of the specialized ships for offshore wind installation are European). The industry has been helped in recent years by the adoption in several coastal states of ambitious new clean energy mandates, and by $3 billion in new targeted loan guarantees set up by the Biden administration.

Vineyard Wind’s approval comes after more than a decade of planning and deliberation, and opposition raised by wealthy local homeowners, marine mammal conservationists, the US Navy, commercial fishing vessel operators, and Trump administration bureaucrats. With those obstacles cleared or accommodated, Vineyard Wind is a proof of concept that should allow future offshore wind projects in the US to face a smoother and quicker path to approval, said Bill White, Avangrid’s head of offshore wind, in an interview.

“There was a lot of uncertainty in this industry over the last few years,” he said. “But the stars are finally aligning, and what you’ll see is a quick acceleration and localization of the supply chain in the US.”

If so, that would go a long way toward helping the country hit the Biden administration’s goal to decarbonize the electric grid by 2035. A Princeton study in March concluded that meeting that goal will require many more farms like Vineyard Wind up and down the Atlantic coast, which is rich with strong, consistent wind; at least a dozen more are currently under consideration by state regulators in Virginia, New York, and elsewhere.