U.S. Offshore Wind – Reality or Myth?

Offshore wind projects in the U.S. got a boost yesterday from the Department of Energy (DOE) when $180 million in funding was announced.  This funding is intended to support demonstration projects on the four coasts of the U.S.  – Atlantic, Pacific, Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico.  By acting as a catalyst for the industry, the DOE hopes to address some of the key challenges associated with installing utility-scale offshore wind turbines, connecting offshore turbines to the power grid, and navigating new permitting and approval processes.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said: “The new offshore wind energy initiative announced today will help to catalyze the development of offshore wind in America, supporting U.S. innovators as they seek to design and demonstrate next generation wind energy technologies.”

The need for offshore wind project development can be illustrated by the successes seen in the United Kingdom and Europe.  Already, the U.K has nearly 2 gigawatts of offshore wind capability and is hoping to expand that to 18 gigawatts by 2020.  Projecting head to 2050, the U.K. expects the offshore wind industry to contribute $57 billion to their economy.

The U.S., with our much greater shorelines and estimated 4,000 gigawatts of offshore wind capability is lagging far behind in this crucial sector.  To date, no U.S. offshore wind farm has been constructed.  Recently,  Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Tommy P. Beaudreau announced that the department’s renewable energy initiative has cleared an important environmental review.   This will allow the Department of the Interior to move forward with wind energy lease sales off the mid-Atlantic Coast.

“When it comes to powering our nation’s homes, businesses and economy, we need to take an all-of-the-above approach to safely and responsibly developing our domestic energy resources,” Secretary Salazar said. “Offshore wind holds incredible potential for our country, and we’re moving full-steam ahead to accelerate the siting, leasing and construction of new projects.”

When the time comes for the construction and servicing of offshore wind farms, it can be hoped that the Maritime Administration and the Department of Transportation will be on board with their fellow federal agencies in making this an All-American industry.  There is already considerable pressure in the renewable energy sector to initiate waivers to the Jones Act for the construction of wind farms by foreign-owned, foreign-manned and foreign-flagged vessels.  These requests for waivers will say that the necessary vessels and manpower are not available in the U.S.      Fortunately, this is not correct.

U.S. flag Jones Act vessels are available.  The short term use of converted oil exploration and supply vessels would fulfill this need while purpose-built offshore wind construction and support vessels could be built in U.S. shipyards.

U.S. merchant mariners are available.  Opening up this brand new maritime sector will allow thousands of U.S. seaman who have honed their skills in the offshore drilling or tug and barge industry to have reliable and steady employment on U.S.-flagged vessels.  The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2360 “Providing for Our Workforce and Energy Resources Act” or the “POWER Act,” extending U.S. law to all Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) energy activities – not just oil and gas.  This bill, while currently awaiting Senate approval, is a further step in assuring this industry benefits Americans.

To answer the question – No, U.S. offshore wind is not a myth.  It is a viable source of energy AND jobs, but care must be taken that it continues to be for the benefit of Americans, not simply for the coffers of a multinational corporation.

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