The hype surrounding offshore wind energy is repeatedly stifled by reality. That’s the clear implication of last month’s announcement that Spanish utility Avangrid was halting work on the proposed 1,200-megawatt Commonwealth wind project because it was “no longer viable.” The company also announced it would delay the launch of another offshore project, the 800-megawatt Park City Wind project.
While Avangrid has since said it would push the Commonwealth project forward, here’s the undeniable truth: the fewer offshore wind turbines that are built, the better off it will be for taxpayers, the commercial fishing industry and the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
As I reported on these pages last year, the history of the domestic offshore wind industry is chock full of lofty aspirations and shattered plans. Numerous projects have put to sea over the last two decades, only to end up stranded on the cliffs of despair. The problems today are the same that doomed the infamous Cape Wind project: costs and permits.
In 2001, supporters of the proposed 468-megawatt Cape Wind project submitted their first permit application. It would become one of the most controversial energy projects of any kind in US history. Despite federal government approvals and the support of many elected officials in Massachusetts, the project has met with tremendous opposition, including notorious anti-vaccine Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose family owns a vacation swankienda in Hyannisport. Cape Wind was officially made deep sixty in 2015.
In 2010, Google announced the Atlantic Wind Connection, an offshore transmission project that aimed to connect around 6,000 megawatts of planned offshore wind capacity. Back then Google
In 2011, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the Obama administration had set a goal of “10 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020 and 54 gigawatts by 2030.” How did this work? Now, 11 years after Salazar’s speech, the US has seven offshore turbines in operation for a total capacity of 42 megawatts — or about 9,958 megawatts short of the target set by Salazar.
Why is the offshore wind weakened? The first reason is so obvious that Ray Charles could have seen it: doing everything in the water increases costs. Adding salt water to the mix sends costs toward the stratosphere. According to the Energy Information Administration, generating electricity from offshore wind turbines has always been one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity. There is little reason to expect that the high cost of offshore wind energy will come down. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Gordon Hughes, economics professor at the University of Edinburgh, has found that the output of Europe’s offshore wind turbines has been declining by around 4.5% per year. In a report titled “Wind Power Economics: Rhetoric and Reality” published in 2020 by the London-based Renewable Energy Foundation, Hughes concluded that declining output will lead to higher operating costs, which the revenue “after 12 or 15 years”. Operators will either stop production or drastically reduce operating costs, leading to closure within a relatively short period of time. There is no way out of this trap because operational costs are linked to reliability; Declining reliability with age means high operational costs are required to keep production running.” (Hughes was on the Power Hungry Podcast in November 2021.)
Offshore wind’s financial and performance issues can also be seen at Dominion Energy
None of these facts stopped the tsunami of offshore hype. In September, the White House issued a press release stating, “President Biden’s vision and leadership has given a boost to America’s offshore wind industry and made America a magnet for clean energy investment. The President has set an ambitious goal of providing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030.”
But last month, Avangrid said its offshore project was being hampered by “global commodity price increases…sudden rate hikes, ongoing supply chain constraints and continued inflation.” All of these factors, the company said, require it to secure a new power generation contract with its customers, which would likely involve large price increases for the electricity generated by the project. On Wednesday, the Commonwealth Wind saga took another turn when Avangrid changed course and said it would proceed with the project. According to an article published by the news outlet offshore wind, Avangrid “notified the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities that it has decided to proceed with power purchase agreements for its Commonwealth wind project, which are currently undergoing a review and permitting process. However, the developer has maintained its position that the 1.2 GW project would not be economically viable under the terms in the current PPAs.”
So maybe Avangrid is going ahead with Commonwealth Wind even though the project isn’t economical? call me confused
Besides the cost and supply chain issues, offshore wind projects also face a variety of litigation. On Nov. 8, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), a national coalition of “fisheries-dependent companies and associations,” filed a summary judgment request in its lawsuit against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and other federal agencies seeking approval obtaining an offshore wind project called Vineyard Wind 1. (Last year, RODA executive director Annie Hawkins appeared on the Power Hungry Podcast.) In a Nov. 14 press release, the group said that federal approval was granted for the Vineyard Wind project “arbitrary, unpredictable and unlawful” and that the permit violates several federal laws, “including the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Merchant Marine Act, and Administrative Procedures Act.” RODA’s lawsuit specifically focuses on genes Vineyard Wind’s approval, although federal authorities “had not yet determined whether the proposed action would endanger the endangered North Atlantic right whale.”
According to an Oct. 24 article published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (which, incidentally, was a cheerleader for offshore wind development), “fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales remain. Right whales are in rapid decline due to ship attacks and entanglements with fishing gear, and the species faces all sorts of other threats, including underwater noise pollution.”
Of course, putting hundreds of wind turbines in the middle of whale habitat will increase underwater noise pollution and further stress the whale population. Last year I contacted Jesse Ausubel, director of the human environment program at Rockefeller University, about the crazy offshore wind rush. Ausubel is one of the world’s leading experts on the ocean and the creatures that live in it. He was one of the early proponents of the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year, multinational project that resulted in about 540 expeditions involving about 2,700 scientists that discovered more than 1,000 new marine species, with several thousand more waiting to be discovered to be described. I will repeat here what Ausubel told me at the time: “Conservationists have not yet grasped the massive industrialization of the oceans that is now underway and proposed.”
Whether it’s the cost to feepayers, grid resilience, or the conservation of North Atlantic right whales, it’s clear that the whole idea of offshore wind is a godsend. Instead of industrializing the oceans, policymakers should paddle back to land with a sober focus on scalable, low-carbon or zero-carbon sources of power generation, including, of course, natural gas and nuclear power.
I have one more conclusion, and I’ve earned it after watching the development of the renewable energy sector for more than a decade. The thing is, the only thing dumber than onshore wind is offshore wind.