By Michael E. Webber and Hugh Daigle 5 minutes Lily
Today, the United States has just two operating offshore wind farms, off Rhode Island and North Carolina, with a combined generating capacity of 42 megawatts. By comparison, the new Traverse Wind Energy Center in Oklahoma has 356 turbines and a generating capacity of 998 megawatts. But many other projects are under development, mainly along the Atlantic coast.
The Biden administration has identified two areas for offshore wind development in the Gulf of Mexico, which until now has been firmly identified with oil and gas production. As part of his climate strategy, President Joe Biden has set a goal of deploying 30 gigawatts (30,000 megawatts) of offshore wind power capacity by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes with carbon-free electricity.
As Texas-based energy researchers, we see this as an exciting new phase in our nation’s ongoing clean energy transition. In our view, offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico presents a unique opportunity for a geographic region with a strong energy workforce and infrastructure to help meet society’s needs for reliable power at low carbon.
Why go offshore?
Onshore wind power has seen remarkable growth in the United States over the past 15 years, including in Texas, the nation’s first wind-powered state. The relative ease of permitting and locating wind power, affordable installation costs, abundant resources, free fuel, and low marginal operating costs have reduced electricity costs for consumers. And wind power avoids significant amounts of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and water demand for cooling – impacts associated with power plants that burn coal, oil or natural gas.
But onshore wind has drawbacks. Winds are often weaker during the hottest hours of summer, when air conditioners are working hard to keep people cool. And many of the best wind power areas are far from centers of electricity demand. For example, most of the wind farms here in the Lone Star State are located on the high plains of West Texas and were only built after the state spent billions of dollars on long transmission lines. distance to move their energy to where it is needed.
Solar power and batteries can solve some of these problems. But producing offshore wind also offers many advantages.
Just as onshore wind has reduced electricity costs for consumers, offshore wind is expected to do the same.
More than half of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coast, so offshore wind sites are close to centers of electricity demand. This is especially true in the Gulf of Mexico, home to major cities like Houston and New Orleans and a large concentration of petrochemical facilities and ports. Power companies can use undersea cables to bring wind power to industrial facilities, instead of building hundreds of miles of overhead cables, with conflicting rights of way and land access.
It is important to note that offshore wind complements onshore wind. As air speeds slow in West Texas on a hot summer afternoon, coastal winds pick up, helping meet peak summer demand and improving grid reliability.
The offshore wind market is already robust globally, but until now it was virtually non-existent in the United States. The abundance of land here spurred the growth of onshore wind, but prevented a rush of water.
This is changing with stricter setback rules in major wind states like Iowa, which limit the proximity of wind turbines to homes, increasing construction costs and limiting the availability of acceptable sites. Transmission capacity limits on the U.S. power grid also make it difficult to bring wind-generated electrons to market.
Welcome to the Gulf, y’all
Thanks to these development trends, along with the Climate Bill measures that increase support for offshore wind, it looks like the U.S. offshore wind industry is finally ready for prime time. We view the Gulf of Mexico as a particularly attractive place to do business.
Compared to the cold and bitter conditions in regions like the North Sea, the North Atlantic and the coast of Japan, where offshore wind generation is already occurring, the Gulf’s shallower water depths, warmer temperatures and calmer waves are relatively easy to manage. Water depths of up to 160 feet—currently the maximum depth for fixed-bottom wind turbines—extend nearly 90 miles off the coasts of southeast Texas and southern Louisiana, compared to only about 40 miles off Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in the northeast.
The Gulf’s seabed topography has a smoother, gentler slope than areas previously considered for development off the coast of Virginia. This means fixed-bottom wind turbines can be used in more locations, rather than floating systems, which reduces complexity.
It is important to note that the Gulf Coast has a robust offshore industry that was created to serve oil and gas producers, with many specialist companies offering services such as underwater welding, platform fabrication forms and services helicopters and boats to transport people and equipment offshore. Oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico supported approximately 345,000 jobs in 2019.
Gulf wind farms can take advantage of existing infrastructure. There are nearly 1,200 miles of existing undersea power cables that could transfer wind power to shore. Wind generation could also be integrated into a larger energy system including green hydrogen production and storage and carbon sequestration.
A boost for vulnerable workers and communities
We also believe that offshore wind energy can help advance environmental justice goals. Generating cleaner, carbon-free electricity will help displace refineries and factories that process fossil fuels and generate electricity from them. These facilities disproportionately harm the health of communities of color in cities like Houston and across the United States.
The development of wind power in the Gulf also provides an opportunity for a smooth labor transition as the United States gradually reduces its reliance on fossil fuels. Louisiana is already moving to establish rules for offshore wind in state waters and is seeking federal funding with Arkansas and Oklahoma for a regional clean hydrogen hub.
Green means go
Permitting for energy projects is notoriously slow at the federal level, and wind energy projects in federal waters can require delays of several years. But projects in state waters — extending up to three nautical miles from shore in most areas and nine miles from shore in Texas — could move faster.
It all depends on whether energy states like Texas and Louisiana see opportunities to extend their reputation as energy leaders to offshore wind. In our view, an offshore wind boom in the Gulf would be good for the region, the nation and the global climate.