The United States power grid is finally getting some big improvements. Last week, the Biden administration announced a plan that, among other efforts, would aim to introduce more clean energy sources online and install more high-voltage cables nationwide to transport that power where it is needed.
On the surface, it may seem that the plan is simply based on the foundation laid by Biden when he signed the two-party infrastructure law in November. Parts of the framework, published last week, focus on the types of subtle details that can make your eyes stand out, such as how to improve the effectiveness of the review of clean energy projects in public lands and vague mentions to support the expansion of clean energy. energy in rural areas. But what is really worth paying attention to are Biden’s goals for offshore wind energy, which is an important source of energy for regions like the northeastern United States that do not have the space and enough sunlight on which solar energy depends. This is where the new plan shifts from everyday to ambitious and could be an indicator of how the administration intends to tackle climate change, energy and jobs at the same time.
Offshore wind production works similar to that of onshore wind turbines (the wind rotates the turbine blades around the rotor, which in turn rotates a generator to produce electricity) – only offshore turbines are rooted in the seabed tens of miles away. from the shore, where they can catch strong ocean winds. These winds are something that the North Atlantic has in abundance, which is why the Biden administration is focusing its initial offshore wind efforts there.
To date, the United States has only seven offshore wind turbines – five at a wind farm near Block Island on Rhode Island and two more designed as tests in Virginia. But on February 23, the federal government will auction off offshore wind leases to utilities or offshore wind developers in an ocean region called New York Bight off the coast of New York and New Jersey. Holders of these leases will then be able to create wind farms in the area that generate up to 7 gigawatts of energy – enough to power about 2 million homes – which will require 600 to 700 turbines.
“The offshore wind in the Western Hemisphere has never seen anything like it,” Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Recode.
Offshore wind energy has historically been within the reach of Europe, which has already built 25 gigawatts of offshore wind power in the last few decades. The upcoming 7-gigawatt lease auction brings renewable energy production to the northeast in a meaningful way, and this is just the first of many: the Biden administration said it intends to increase offshore wind production to 30 gigawatts by 2030. Although this is still the case. part of the approximately 1,000 gigawatts that Americans use each year, this will still be a significant contribution that will help the country move from coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants.
Importantly, Biden’s plan is not just to increase clean energy production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it also opens the door to an economy built around clean energy. These 600 or 700 wind turbines will require people to build turbine components, send them to sea and maintain them once they are built. To make this happen, the White House and the Transport Department are working to create nearly 80,000 offshore wind jobs by 2030 by investing in East Coast ports – some as far as inland Albany, New York. from where turbine parts will be delivered down the Hudson River to New York Bay.
“The administration seems to understand that energy is at the root of an integrated problem,” said Alexandra von Meyer, director of the power grid program at the California Institute of Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley. “It’s about people’s well-being and jobs.”
This is also a smart political move: linking the fate of 80,000 jobs (almost twice as many as coal jobs in the country) to offshore wind could isolate the plan from, say, a Republican victory in 2024. All again, Biden’s plan could fail depending on the upcoming election results. While the sale of the lease will take place in February, the permitting process itself may take up to three years, after which the construction of the turbines will take another two years. This is more than enough time for a climate-denying interior minister with various political goals to take over and throw a wrench in the plan.
The offshore wind is also not without its ill-wishers. In New England, local fishermen teamed up with an oil industry lobby group in December to counter Vineyard Wind, a proposed 84-turbine wind farm off the water near Cape Cod, Massachusetts; a lawsuit filed by the fishing industry is still pending in court. Turbines, fishermen say, could have a negative impact on marine life. They are also concerned that turbine towers may interfere with radar, while safety zones without sailing near turbines may affect their ability to reach fishing grounds. The long-term effects of wind turbines on marine life are still unclear, but a study in the North Sea in Europe shows that turbine bases can act as artificial reefs for animals such as mussels. Late last year, the Department of Energy provided Duke University with a $ 7.5 million grant to study the impact of wind at sea on marine life, the results of which should provide a fuller picture of how turbines can affect fisheries. Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy is looking for workarounds, so the New York Bate sale notice includes provisions aimed at helping fishermen, such as 2.8-mile-wide transit lanes for fishing vessels.
The challenges do not end there: even if wind turbines are built, and even if their potential impact on marine life is minimized, there must be a place for the energy they produce. Transmission lines – those high-voltage cables you see stretched on steel struts in vast parts of the country – are usually built by regional transmission organizations, and Jacobs says there may not be enough to carry all the energy produced by these new turbines.
This is exactly the problem that Germany faced in 2020, when the lack of transmission capacity in northern Germany meant that the region had to send part of its wind energy to neighboring countries. “A lot of offshore winds have arrived on the beach,” Jacobs said. “And then the German utility industry said, ‘Oh, we really weren’t prepared for that.’
The Biden administration seems to want to avoid such a situation in the United States. That is why the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act includes funding for transmission lines, and the administration announced that the Ministry of Energy has launched an initiative called Building a Better Network, which will act as a kind of central planning body for network improvements. But it is unclear whether this transmission will take place by the time the offshore wind starts operating in New York Bay – and the administration does not mention the distribution lines or lower voltage wires that supply electricity to homes and businesses. They are usually built in the United States by local utilities, explained Kiri Baker, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, and are often replaced only after they become completely inoperable.
“You can have all the clean energy and all the high-voltage lines you want,” Baker told Recode by email, “but without a sustainable distribution network we will still experience life-threatening power outages due to increasing extreme weather events.”
However, von Mayer remains optimistic. Combining green energy with jobs and new transmission lines that will better withstand climate change, she said, is an exciting first step. The Biden administration has realized that there is indeed something like this threefold need to tackle climate, tackle sustainability and tackle justice. And I think they realized that this is an opportunity with pure energy to deal with all three together.
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