Opinion

Derrick Z. Jackson

The competition is heating up for offshore wind

The Block Island wind farm in 2016.
Derrick Z. Jackson
The Block Island wind farm in 2016.

Massachusetts became a national leader in offshore wind energy a decade ago when the sole big project on the horizon was the never-built 130-turbine, 468 megawatt Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound. But in just the last two and a half years since utilities pulled the plug on Cape Wind, competition has exploded into a boomtown frenzy. Virtually all the top offshore wind companies in Europe are jockeying for US projects up and down the East Coast, and many states are threatening to strip Massachusetts of its front-runner status.

Last month, at an offshore wind conference in New York City, New York Lieutenant Governor Karen Hochul said her state would be “the preeminent global hub for the next generation of growth in this industry.” In Maryland, where proponents hope to transform docks near Baltimore, developer Paul Rich told the Baltimore Sun, “This will be the Silicon Valley of industrial activity for the offshore wind industry for the whole East Coast.” Virginia officials also invoke the image of Silicon Valley, as the stakes have become huge almost overnight.

Last year, Massachusetts created the nation’s top mandate for offshore wind, 1.6 gigawatts by 2027. But this year New York announced a goal of 2.4 gigawatts by 2030, and New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy pledges 3.5 gigawatts by 2030. Maryland and Virginia have approved projects, and the Trump administration, despite its pro-coal rhetoric, sold an offshore wind lease area off Kitty Hawk capable of producing 1.5 gigawatts of energy.

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Based on state, federal, and campaign estimates, that adds up to enough juice to power 4.5 million homes. The Obama administration projected that it was realistic for the United States to generate 86 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2050, powering tens of millions of homes. The exponential growth potential of offshore wind has become more economically realistic and politically salient for several reasons. One is that, unlike Cape Wind’s site in shallower water in view of residents, new projects are in deeper water far off the coast. Another is that turbine power and installation efficiency has Europe’s offshore wind farms years ahead of schedule in competing with fossil fuel prices and weaning off government subsidies. When Cape Wind was planned, the industry standard was a 3.6-megawatt turbine. The norm is now 6-to-8 megawatts, with a 9.5 megawatt machine announced this summer.

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“It’s been a real slog, but the great news is that with all the innovation, the US has the opportunity to do it right and do it faster than the first projects in Europe,” said Jason Folsom, head of American sales for Siemens Gamesa.

Stephanie McClellan, a University of Delaware offshore wind expert who calculates that a strong project pipeline in Massachusetts will make the price of offshore wind competitive with fossil fuels, said, “I’m pretty close to shocked with all the cost-reduction developments we’re seeing by the Danish, the Dutch, the Germans . . . everything’s moving in the right direction.”

But now other states are moving in the direction Massachusetts blazed, forcing state officials to make a case for being an offshore hub. In a May conference on Long Island, Bill White, director of offshore wind for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, reminded 400 people that the Commonwealth has the nation’s first ready-to-deploy port terminal in New Bedford and a world-class blade testing facility in Charlestown. Innovation is already occurring as Deepwater Wind, with offices in Providence and New Bedford, has proposed a 144-megawatt wind farm south of Martha’s Vineyard that will employ a Tesla battery storage system for peak energy use.

“We have political leadership,” White said. “We have a great business climate in the Bay State. . . . We have some of the finest universities. We are very committed.”

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There remains plenty of cooperative spirit between Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island. The three states this month released a report estimating that the Northeast could see between 4 to 8 gigawatts of projects by 2030, powering up to four million homes and providing up to 16,000 direct jobs, and perhaps 20,000 more related jobs.

But the competition is heating up so fast that advocates fear the Commonwealth must dramatically shorten the timeline of 2027 for its 1.6 gigawatts, or risk losing jobs to more aggressive states — and the possibility of giant facilities to manufacture turbines and blades. In a guest column in the New Bedford Standard Times, Bradley Campbell, head of the Conservation Law Foundation, and George Bachrach, former head of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said the state should fulfill the mandate by 2022.

That is reasonable, given industry advances, and also prudent, with New York nipping at the state’s heels. Ironically, the head of New York’s clean energy division is former Massachusetts Clean Energy Center CEO Alicia Barton. “Everybody should be looking at New York,” Barton said. “We have the right workforce, infrastructure, and marine logistics. We’re the home for engineering and financing services. We’ll be ready to deliver.”

At the beginning of the offshore wind saga in the United States, Massachusetts was the hub of this universe. Now, Bill White says, “It’s not about any one state anymore, and we know that. But we’ll get our share.” A decade ago, a lion’s share was unquestioned. No more.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe contributing columnist and a climate and energy fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He can be reached at jackson@globe.com.