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The Conversation

USA - Biden calls for a big expansion of offshore wind: How officials decide where the turbines may go

President Joe Biden has set a goal for the U.S. to achieve net-zero emissions economywide by 2050. That will require an unprecedented expansion of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels that release climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The Biden administration has announced ambitious plans to scale up leasing for offshore wind energy projects along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts. In an announcement released on Oct. 13, 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior stated that it will "use the best available science as well as knowledge from ocean users and other stakeholders to minimize conflict with existing uses and marine life." University of Massachusetts Boston public policy scholar David W. Cash, who worked at senior levels in state government for a decade, describes how this process works.

Why does the Biden administration want to build so much wind power at sea?

President Joe Biden has set a goal for the U.S. to achieve net-zero emissions economywide by 2050. That will require an unprecedented expansion of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels that release climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that U.S. offshore wind resources could provide over 2,000 gigawatts of generating capacity—nearly twice as much electricity as the nation uses every year. For context, the capacity of a large fossil fuel or nuclear power plant is about 1 gigawatt.

The Biden administration aims to have 30 gigawatts of offshore wind operating by 2030. Today the U.S. has a fraction of that—just 42 megawatts of offshore wind from five turbines off Rhode Island and two off Virginia. (A gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts.)

Offshore wind has many advantages over land-based turbines. First, wind blows harder and more consistently at sea than on land. Second, coastal and Great Lakes states account for almost 80% of U.S. electricity demand, so offshore wind can supply electricity close to population centers and businesses.

Finally, offshore wind development can revitalize coastal ports and manufacturing centers. A recent study from the University of Delaware estimates that over the next decade, offshore wind development can drive US$109 billion in economic development. This means it can support the Biden administration's twin energy and equity goals.

Experts say that with careful planning, offshore wind has the potential to generate jobs and economic development in historically underserved communities. It also offers oil and gas companies and their workers an opportunity to pivot to a new clean energy sector that shares some common skills and technologies.

What makes an offshore site good for wind power?

Obviously, you need a site where winds blow consistently at sufficient speeds. And it's best if offshore wind generation won't conflict with other uses of the ocean, such as fishing and shipping routes.

What's onshore is also critical. Port cities are essential to support offshore wind development. The developers also need facilities that can assemble huge towers and turbine blades and support the specialized ships that install and maintain them.

It's important to have a local manufacturing base and enough trained or trainable workers to carry out construction, operations and maintenance. And wind power developers need customers, so they will want to know whether nearby states will require their utilities to buy offshore wind electricity with long-term contracts.

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