Biden’s call for ‘doubling’ offshore wind puzzles experts

Source: By David Iaconangelo and Heather Richards, E&E News reporters • Posted: Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Biden administration promised Wednesday to double offshore wind energy by 2030 as part of a sweeping series of actions to kick-start the federal government’s response to climate change.

But that promise — plucked with few alterations from President Biden’s campaign climate platform — left some experts scratching their heads.

“Doubling offshore wind by 2030 shouldn’t be too hard, considering there is barely any right now,” Hana Veselka Vizcarra, a staff attorney at Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program, wrote in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

Today, there are just two offshore wind turbines in federal waters, some 30 miles from Virginia Beach, Va. That’s on top of the five Block Island turbines spinning in state waters off the coast of Rhode Island.

Did the administration mean to target just four turbines by 2030, or something grander?

Most groups are sure it’s the latter. After all, the president’s campaign clean energy platform referred to “thousands of turbines off our coasts” being built in Biden’s first term.

But his latest executive actions on climate didn’t offer such details (Energywire, Jan. 28).

“This is an opportunity for them to fill in the blanks,” said Damian Bednarz, a spokesperson for the American arm of German utility EnBW. “If you look around, who else is there to do that? The administration has set a marker; they are showing momentum, and the next step is laying out the specifics.”

Bednarz said the “doubling” language in Biden’s order is more accessible for people outside the offshore wind business.

“From a messaging point, if I’m sitting in the White House, who knows what a gigawatt is?” he said. “‘Doubling’ to me means momentum; it means commitment.”

Many experts agree that the offshore wind industry in the United States is poised to boom under the new White House, if conflicts with fishermen and federal permitting delays can be resolved.

Biden has shown ardent support for climate progress, in keeping with his policy goals like decarbonizing the grid by 2035. Reaching such a target would demand building offshore wind power in short order.

The incoming administration has also brought relief for wind energy developers after a sometimes chilly relationship with President Trump. The presumptive first offshore wind farm in the country — Vineyard Wind — withdrew its 800-megawatt proposal in New England weeks before Biden took office, as tensions rose over a much-delayed environmental review (Energywire, Dec. 14, 2020). It has since sought permission from the Biden Interior Department to reenter the queue.

Industry optimism

Biden signed one executive action Wednesday directing Interior to review how its offshore wind siting and permitting processes could be reformed to support the new industry.

Many advocates celebrated the order rather than splitting hairs.

“This is an exciting moment for the industry, and we are ready to work closely with this administration,” said Laura Smith Morton, senior director of policy and regulatory affairs for offshore wind at the American Clean Power Association. She added that her group is confident the Biden administration will flesh out the executive action’s language with a “specific target.”

But some of the industry’s excitement spilled over into speculation about what, exactly, would be “doubled.”

Joe Martens, director of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance, told E&E News he hopes it will mean “twice the current state goals and commitments.” Several East Coast states have committed to buying nearly 30 gigawatts of electricity from offshore turbines. For scale, the planned Vineyard Wind project off of Massachusetts could deliver enough power for 700,000 homes using well under 1 GW.

If Biden adopted a 60-GW target to guide Interior officials, that would resemble what energy officials saw as feasible when he was vice president. In 2011, the department published a national strategy that targeted 54 GW by 2030.

Whatever the definition may be, one of the clearest ways of doubling offshore wind might come through Interior’s power to auction off leases, some industry insiders said.

Jordan Shoesmith, a senior manager for bid development at Vineyard Wind, said on Twitter that holding additional leases to ocean areas would be “the only way” to double the amount of proposed offshore wind capacity — if that was indeed the goal.

Industry trade groups have clamored for Interior to make millions of acres available to developers this year, particularly off New York, New Jersey and California. One August study by four wind industry organizations said that acreage off those states and the Carolinas could cumulatively support 28 GW of new offshore wind — roughly double what has been proposed across the country.

“Leasing in federal waters is also something almost completely under the control of the executive branch,” wrote Shoesmith, “so it is something Biden can absolutely do.”