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Catching a Breeze

America's belated push to develop offshore wind energy

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Wind power means cleaner air and thousands of jobs. Germany today has an offshore wind workforce of 20,500., Derrick Z. Jackson

This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect.Subscribe here

Three years ago, after the collapse of Cape Wind off Nantucket Sound, renewable offshore wind energy in the United States was “a stone dead market,” according to Thomas Brostrøm, president of Ørsted North America. His Danish parent company, formerly DONG Energy, has built more offshore wind farms than any country in the world.

Cape Wind, the 130-turbine, 468-megawatt brainchild of clean energy entrepreneur Jim Gordon, was litigated to the grave by local residents as too ruinous to the Cape Cod seascape. It was resisted by liberal Kennedys and right-wing Kochs alike. Despite its environmental benefits, the project also was persistently criticized as a noncompetitive boondoggle with outrageous power costs.

The death knell of America’s first would-be offshore wind farm was arguably most felt in New Bedford, Massachusetts. That city, despite being the richest seafood port in the United States, has long been beset by high unemployment from the decline of its mills. Betting that Cape Wind would help make Massachusetts the first American hub of the offshore wind industry, Governor Deval Patrick poured $113 million into a European-grade port terminal that could handle the massive size and weight of blades and foundations and the skyscraper height of towers.

When Patrick and a host of state officials came to New Bedford in May of 2013 to break ground for the terminal’s construction, the city’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, said, “For a corner of the state that has had its hopes dashed so many times in the past wanting transformative economic development and not quite getting there, now it’s real.”

This five-turbine project off Block Island, Rhode Island, is the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. Derrick Z. Jackson

After the collapse of Cape Wind, Mitchell drew the ire of residents who felt set up and burned yet again. “I can remember allowing myself to listen to the radio chatter after the announcement [that the plan had collapsed],” he says. “The hosts and the audience wanted to pile on that I was putting all my eggs in one basket and made it like there was nothing left because they assumed Cape Wind was central to my economic strategy.

“It was painful. But when you’re the mayor of a mid-sized city, you have to take risks. I took this job not just to fill potholes and plant trees.”

FORTUNATELY FOR MITCHELL and for friends of renewable energy, the stone-dead market has been reborn with a speed that has stunned offshore wind advocates. The United States may be an embarrassing quarter-century behind Denmark in putting its first offshore wind farm into the water—a five-turbine, 30-megawatt project off Block Island, Rhode Island, completed in late 2016—but it is still on the verge of that very transformative change Mitchell talked about a hopeful five years ago.

This year, the Bay State will select the developers for between 400 and 800 of the 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power mandated by Massachusetts. Based on the bids, 1,600 megawatts (or 1.6 gigawatts) would power up to one million homes, nearly a third of the households in the state. Projects are being announced, planned, and approved all the way from New England to the South Atlantic. As evidence that offshore wind is an unprecedented economic opportunity, even the Trump administration—no friend of green energy—has thus far continued the Obama-era program of competitive leasing for offshore wind projects in federal waters.

A year ago, the government awarded a lease of 122,000 acres of ocean off Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called the $9 million lease sale “a big win” for energy independence and economic boosting. In October, Zinke met with the energy minister of wind energy pioneer Denmark as the two nations signed an agreement to share information about the industry. In January, Zinke’s energy policy counselor, Vincent DeVito, traveled to Denmark, where Bloomberg quoted him as saying that the United States is working “quite aggressively” to pursue a “robust expansion of offshore wind.”

The Trump administration’s friendly curiosity about offshore wind is quite curious.

The Trump administration’s friendly curiosity about offshore wind is quite curious. Zinke is otherwise opening up public lands and waters for fossil fuel drilling and is slashing climate science at the Interior Department. His boss, President Donald Trump, wanders from fantastical romancing of coal, to fanatical ravaging of the Environmental Protection Agency, to giving the planet a sooty middle finger with his rejection of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate accords. The dabbling with Denmark is stunning, considering how that nation has turned its back on fossil fuels. It is shooting for 50 percent wind energy by 2020 and 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Trump himself has had little good to say about wind, once tweeting, “Windmills are destroying every country they touch.” He failed to block a demonstration offshore wind farm in view from one of his Scottish golf courses. He ridiculously claimed wind farms are “not working at large scale,” and when they do work, they “kill all the birds.” As president-elect, he told The New York Times, “We don’t make the windmills in the United States.”

One can only suppose that Trump publicly trashes wind to be in anachronistic sync with his climate-change denying base. Zinke has also jumped on the “turbinator” bandwagon, last year telling the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that turbines “chop” up to 750,000 birds a year. The risk of turbine-bird collisions was real enough for the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to devise voluntary guidelines for wind farm siting.

While there should continue to be studies as wind power proliferates on land and at sea, the political fixation on turbines is hilarious. Wind farms do kill up to 327,000 birds a year, but vehicle collisions, window crashes, and clawing cats respectively annihilate up to 1,000 times, 3,000 times, and 11,000 times as many birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A University of Vermont Law School study found that fossil fuel power plants kill 24 million birds a year.

As for Trump’s claims about the lack of scale and the United States supposedly not making windmills, the U.S. is merely the world’s second-leading wind market after China and has the third-most wind jobs in the world after China and Germany.

THE AMERICAN LAND-BASED wind industry was launched by liberal California, but is surging in some of the reddest parts of Trump’s electoral landscape. The top six biggest installers of land-based wind in 2016 were all states he handily won to claim the White House: Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, and Nebraska. The five states where wind energy is between 21.5 percent and 36.6 percent of electricity generation are all states Trump won: Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and both North and South Dakota.

There no longer is any comparison with coal, which Trump touted as beautiful and clean in his January State of the Union address. While at most 1,000 coal jobs were added in Trump’s first year, the wind industry added 25,000 jobs in 2016, according to Trump’s own Department of Energy. In 2012, there were nearly 90,000 coal-mining jobs and 80,000 wind energy jobs. Today, with cheap natural gas and the rapid advance of technology that makes renewable energy cost-competitive, there are more than 100,000 manufacturing, construction, and operations jobs in wind, nearly double coal’s now 52,000.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the two fastest-growing jobs in the country are solar installer and wind-turbine technician, earning a respective median annual wage of $39,000 and $52,000 a year. While Trump has thrown the solar installation industry into a quandary with his new tariffs targeting Chinese- and Korean-made panels, the entire supply chain for onshore wind is here in the United States.

The American Wind Energy Association, the trade group for the industry, claims more than 500 facilities in 41 states. Onshore wind is a bipartisan success that has survived fossil-fuel lobby attacks on renewable energy production tax credits. The original author of those credits is Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who warned Trump during the presidential campaign that any attempt to eliminate them would have to be done “over my dead body.” The two top manufacturers of giant towers, blades, and nacelles, according to the American Wind Energy Association, are blue-state Colorado and swing-state Iowa. The three states with the most numerous wind subcomponent factories are swing-state Ohio, red-state Texas, and blue-state Illinois.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that offshore wind off U.S. coasts could power the country twice over.

Offshore wind offers the opportunity to accelerate that story, and it appears that at least some people within the Trump administration realize it. While Trump generally delights his base by trying to erase the Obama legacy, the Department of Energy still maintains on its website the prior president’s ambitious hopes and strategies for wind power. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that offshore wind off U.S. coasts could power the country twice over. A 2015 Wind Vision report assumes that offshore wind will account for a quarter of all wind jobs by 2050, helping direct manufacturing, construction, and operations wind jobs to at least triple to between 301,000 and 378,000.

TO SEE WHAT THE FUTURE looks like, one need only look at northern Europe. Eleven countries, led by the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, have 4,149 turbines spinning, mostly in the North, Irish, and Baltic Seas, churning out nearly 16 gigawatts of power. There are enough projects on the way for the continent to hit 25 gigawatts by 2020. Even the lowest projection for 2030 by WindEurope, the continent’s top industry advocacy group, is 50 gigawatts. The world’s two biggest wind farms yet are being built over the next four years in England’s North Sea, near the Humber Estuary and the cities of Hull and Grimsby. When completed, they will provide 2.6 gigawatts of power for 2.3 million homes.

WindEurope anticipates that offshore wind will account for 7 percent to 11 percent of the EU’s electricity demand by 2030, and that all wind energy will provide between a quarter to nearly a third of demand. But with the cost of offshore wind dropping and technology improving so rapidly, the group said offshore wind could produce a quarter of EU demand on its own by 2030.

After launching the industry with heavy public subsidies to support the development of nascent green energy, governments are enjoying the fruits of innovation, approving projects with record-low subsidies or none at all. Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and two dozen top offshore wind companies last year pledged to add 60 gigawatts of offshore wind during the 2020s. In a joint statement, they said offshore wind should be “fully competitive with new conventional generation ahead of 2030.”

That means cleaner air and thousands of jobs. Germany had a 10 percent jump in 2015 alone and is today up to 20,500 offshore wind jobs, according to the German Wind Energy Association. Denmark’s offshore industrial sector, rapidly making the switch from oil and gas to offshore wind, is 13,000 strong. The Netherlands expects its offshore wind force to shoot from 4,000 in 2016 to 10,000 by 2020.

Offshore wind ports like the U.K.'s Hull must be large enough to accomodate turbines half the height of the Empire State Building and blades nearby the length of a football field. Derrick Z. Jackson

Most impressive at the moment, and perhaps the best model for the United States, is the United Kingdom. The U.K. was not as paralyzed over offshore wind as the United States, but did not embrace it the way Denmark and Germany did—and thus ceded to those two nations the original core of the industry. But the British have already made up for lost time as the world’s leader in installations. The United Kingdom is now up to more than 1,700 turbines in the water, accounting for 43 percent of the continent’s offshore power.

The United Kingdom should be at 10 gigawatts by 2020 and, depending on growth scenarios, could double, triple, or even quadruple that by 2040, according to the University of Hull. That could mean more than doubling the nation’s current 17,500 jobs in planning, manufacturing, construction, transportation, and technical and business support. There is enough action to attract factories. Siemens Gamesa opened a giant blade plant in Hull a little over a year ago.

I reported from Hull last year for The Boston Globe. The Humber region is expected to grow from 1,500 jobs in the offshore industry to more than 6,000. Unemployment in Hull, nearly 16 percent in 2012, was 6.6 percent last September. I talked with former oil and gas workers who retooled. In an eerie parallel to onshore wind taking hold in the red states of America, two-thirds of Hull voters supported the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union out of anger that London left smaller cities behind. But when it comes to jobs, it does not matter that the companies behind the boom are Danish and German.

“It’s a little bonkers,” says David Laister, business editor of the Grimsby Telegraph. “When you’ve got DONG [now Ørsted] and Siemens investing billions of dollars in the area, it’s hard to get mad at them. They’ve made the statement they’re not going away.”

I’ve also been to the city of Bremerhaven, Germany, where unemployment was nearly 24 percent in 2005, from the crash of the fishing industry, factory and shipping downturns, and the shuttering of a U.S. military base. Today, unemployment has been nearly halved to about 13 percent. The downtown has several museums for family tourism, a deluxe conference hotel, a beautiful ocean promenade, and local universities and vocational colleges with students training for blue-collar and white-collar offshore wind jobs.

It is in fact a cliché for European offshore experts to call offshore wind their “moon shot.”

That is significantly due to the vast nearby docks. In an industry where turbine heights now reach halfway up the Empire State Building, where single blades are nearly the length of a football field, and where the nacelle housings from which the blades spin and generate power are indeed the size of houses, the offshore wind ports of places like Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven in Germany or Hull in the U.K. are no less impressive than a visit to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. It is in fact a cliché for European offshore experts to call offshore wind their “moon shot.”

FOR ALL ITS SLOTH, AMERICA can still be a celestial body in the offshore wind universe. Massachusetts and Rhode Island can take particular credit. Even as Cape Wind was in limbo, state agencies such as the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center kept pushing for more investment. In 2013, the nation’s first competitive lease sale was held, won by Providence-based Deepwater Wind for $3.8 million for 164,750 acres of water known as the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Wind Areas.

Deepwater Wind is the developer of the five-turbine Block Island project. CEO Jeff Grybowski was once a corporate lawyer and chief of staff to Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri. He said his first reaction to offshore wind was “What a ridiculous idea. You’re going to put wind turbines in the middle of the ocean? How in the world would we get state and federal to all line up to support it? Then I thought, this is a fascinating puzzle to put together.”

He put the puzzle together to develop America’s inaugural wind farm off Block Island. The five turbines stand only three miles offshore, but this was an easier sell because residents have been using diesel generators—giving them some of the highest energy prices in the country from one of the dirtiest of fuels. The emissions, which contribute to smog, had the Environmental Protection Agency charging the local power company with violations of the Clean Air Act in the 1990s.

That meant Grybowski had to do a lot less arm-twisting than in the case of Cape Wind. But he still had to be careful because there was some skepticism among residents of claims that the project would save money on their bills. Part of staying in their favor required downsizing from an original eight turbines to five when the power of machines increased from 3.6 megawatts to 6.

On Grybowski’s first visit to scope out the island, he took the ferry from the mainland in the summer, in his regular business suit. “I realized we better take these ties off,” he said. “We had the cabbie take us to Southeast Light [off which the turbines can now be seen]. The cabbie was very inquisitive as to why we wanted to go there. We knew as soon as we left, the whole town would be talking. It was like Mayberry.”

Mayberry, for now, is the metropolis of American offshore wind. It forged ahead as Cape Wind lost its power contracts at the beginning of 2015, when the mood of investors plummeted. A federal lease auction held three weeks later drew only two developers from Europe out of a dozen that were qualified. They purchased only two out of four available parcels. Even though each parcel was about the size of Deepwater’s $3.8 million area, they got them for a depressing $281,285 and $150,197.

Wind turbines near Block Island, Rhode Island. Derrick Z. Jackson

“Those were some very dark days,” says Bill White, the offshore wind director of Massachusetts’s clean energy economic agency. “I  thought the collapse of Cape Wind would have pushed the industry back ten years.”

White is glad that he was wrong. When Cape Wind was planned, normal turbine power was 3.6 megawatts per machine. Now, turbine power in Europe is at 8 megawatts per machine and is about to hit 10 megawatts, 18 and 22 times more than when the industry started with .045-megawatt machines in Denmark in 1991. Along with transmission upgrades, new offshore wind energy costs are well below new nuclear power and are taking dead aim at natural gas.

Those developments have been seized upon by several U.S. states, which, in the absence of national energy policy from a conservative Congress, are acting like individual European nations to create their own renewable energy portfolios. For instance, as Massachusetts faced the rapid retirements of coal and nuclear power plants, serious legislative debate began on how to replace the energy while also meeting greenhouse gas reduction goals. The ultimate result was the 2016 bill that mandated offshore wind and hydroelectric power. A key proponent was State Representative Patricia Haddad, who represents a district near New Bedford that is home to a 300-acre coal plant that was retired last year.

She once told me that people in her district used to “like our taxes low and our air dirty.” But the dying coal industry made her see that transmission lines could go in more than one direction, and she swapped out her nickname as the Queen of Coal to the Witch of Wind. The coal plant was purchased in January by a firm that says its primary interest is in renewable energy development.

“I didn’t go into offshore wind to make history,” Haddad told me. “I got into it because there was a problem and you have to chip away at it. I had 300 acres about to go dark. Then I started hearing things about this industry and that there might be 10 gigawatts of power potential in our waters. Why not plug our old plant into this pipeline?”

Moderate Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who succeeded Democrat Deval Patrick, once criticized Cape Wind’s cost as a sweetheart deal. But he signed the 1.6-gigawatt mandate into law in the face of new economics. A study earlier in 2016 by University of Delaware researchers determined that an efficient 2-gigawatt pipeline of competitive offshore wind projects would deliver competitive energy prices within a decade.

The three entities bidding for the first 400 megawatts of offshore wind in Massachusetts certainly hint as much, along with one bidder promising nearly 11,000 direct and indirect jobs over the life of its projects. Erich Stephens, chief development officer of Vineyard Wind, a partnership of a Danish clean energy pension fund investment firm and the wind division of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, said, “When people see the prices that come out, I think the possibility will become real to them.” Brostrøm of Ørsted, which is partnering with New England’s top energy provider, Eversource, in a company called Bay State Wind, said, “It will absolutely be a price that will kick-start the industry aggressively.”

As an example of how the industry would be kick-started, Grybowski named eight U.S. ports involved in handling the components of just the five turbines of Block Island, including the loading dock in Houma, Louisiana, where the foundations were made.

IF ALL DOES WELL, THERE will be many projects to complete, as Massachusetts’s mandate for 1.6 gigawatts has already triggered a chain reaction. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind, shortly after Statoil of Norway plunked down $42.5 million for ocean rights off Jones Beach on Long Island. The new governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, pledges 3.5 gigawatts. Rhode Island is looking to offshore wind as part of its goal for a gigawatt of clean energy by 2020. Connecticut is calling for up to 220 megawatts of offshore wind proposals.

Maryland has approved 368 megawatts worth of offshore wind, including a project being built by Deepwater Wind. That state’s energy administration anticipates $2 billion of economic activity, including nearly 10,000 full-time equivalent jobs. In an eye-opening sign that the biggest players in the industry see the United States as a mega-market, Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Denmark’s Vestas last year began a $35 million collaborative with Clemson University in South Carolina to stress-test the world’s most powerful 9.5-megawatt offshore wind turbine.

Proving that innovation comes with foresight, Clemson’s $98 million Energy Innovation Center, which can test turbines up to 15 megawatts, was built with $45 million of Obama-era Recovery Act federal grants from the Energy Department. The $40 million wind-blade testing facility in Boston was also partially built with federal stimulus money and state funds.

Clemson’s facility, in an unspoken show of bipartisanship, is proudly proclaimed as a “success story” by the Trump administration. Somebody within the White House, despite the general environmental madness of the administration, does see renewable energy as a present and future economic engine. Perhaps they read last year’s report commissioned by the clean energy agencies of Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island and the Clean States Alliance.

That report found that a pipeline of offshore wind between Maine and Maryland ranging between 4 and 8 gigawatts could create 8,300 to 16,700 baseline jobs (work that is almost certain to be done in the United States) by 2028. If industry giants are convinced there are enough projects in the pipeline to build up a complete supply chain here for the 8,000 parts that go into each turbine, and build factories here instead of shipping nacelles and blades from countries such as Denmark, Germany, and France, the number of jobs could soar to more than 36,000.

That is no longer a fantasy, with more than 8 gigawatts of official state mandates and pledges. It may not be long before the United States returns the favor to Europe in technological progress. Deepwater Wind is working with Tesla on offshore wind battery storage. Boston-based General Electric recently announced the development of the world’s most powerful turbine yet, a 12-megawatt machine that will stand nearly 80 stories tall, with blades nearly 350 feet long.

“Many of us who’ve been at it for so long are kind of in disbelief that it’s happening so fast,” White says. “It’s taken so long, but the pipeline is emerging.”

For now, the East Coast owns the action, where ocean floors remain shallow enough for farms to be installed with traditional fix platforms, out of sight of coastal communities. On the West Coast, California and Oregon have tremendous wind resources as well, but their much deeper waters must wait for floating technology. The first pilot floating farm began operating last year in Scotland.

But so much would have to be done to allow a full industry to blossom. Few singular U.S. ports have the vast space of top offshore wind facilities in Europe, and they would have to be expanded and reconfigured. For instance, the 26-acre, state-of-the-art New Bedford port terminal could hold one and a half modern pro football stadiums. But in Hull, the Siemens Gamesa blade facility could hold 13 Lincoln Financial Fields, where the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles play.

To borrow from Grybowski’s analogy of offshore wind being a puzzle, Massachusetts and New York are jockeying over where to put the pieces. The former has issued an assessment of its ports and the latter has published a master plan. Maryland’s offshore wind developers, which include Deepwater Wind, have agreed to invest more than $100 million in port facilities in the Baltimore area. Political and civic leaders up and down the coast are throwing down boasts that they will be the Silicon Valley of offshore wind.

Even if the whole industry does not immediately come to the United States, there is plenty of opportunity in those 8,000 parts of a turbine.

Even if the whole industry does not immediately come to the United States, there is plenty of opportunity in those 8,000 parts of a turbine. Mark O’Reilly, the CEO of the Team Humber Marine Alliance, the top advocate for port business in the Hull and Grimsby area, told me, “Do not get too hung up on getting the big stuff right away. There are actually probably many more jobs in the supply chain in making smaller parts, operations and management and marine specialist services. The most important thing is to build out a knowledgeable base full of expertise. You do that and local jobs will come.”

The University of Hull predicts that U.K. content in the supply chain of offshore wind projects, now just over 30 percent, will double to between 60 percent and 65 percent by 2032, and the value of British participation in offshore projects in the rest of the European Union in the same time period will grow from just over 5 percent to more than 20 percent. In another analysis of big contracts of at least 10 million pounds, spending on British construction firms shot up from 18 percent to 29 percent just from 2015 to 2017.

The RenewableUK report said offshore wind is now in the top ten of infrastructure spending in that nation, and “making a strong case for a central role in the government’s new industrial strategy.”

Back in New Bedford, the hopes of being America’s first port hub remain alive. All three bidders for this year’s procurement of offshore wind in Massachusetts have agreed to use the $113 million port terminal. But Mayor Mitchell knows he is no longer alone for future business. To be sure, he has not put all his eggs in one basket, as efforts to diversify the economy in a high-tech state helped give the city the nation’s biggest drop in unemployment last year. Offshore wind would now be a sweet icing.

 “I always believed offshore wind would take off,” he says. “I just thought we’d have more of a lead. When I used to go to mayors conferences, I don’t think anyone paid attention to our ambitions.

“But now, when I talk offshore wind, the mayors of cities like Baltimore, Providence, Honolulu, and Charleston all nod their heads. We know we have to position ourselves. The next couple of years will be pivotal.”

Mitchell’s thoughts were seconded a few blocks away by his former head of economic development and chief lobbyist for the wind industry. Now an executive at Deepwater Wind, Matthew Morrissey says he was one of the many who thought Cape Wind was too big to fail and would propel New Bedford into new prominence. 

Now, he sees a measure of good fortune in waiting for this moment. “We know now that you can’t stand a whole industry on one project,” Morrissey says. “We now have so many projects up and down the coast that we’ll be able to get a fairly quick and rational handle on best practices, costs, and getting this industry right. We have the chance to move this industry faster in the U.S. than Europe. Given how far behind we started, that’s saying something.”


Derrick Z. Jackson is a contributing columnist at The Boston Globe. He is a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist and has won numerous other awards, including from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Education Writers Association.

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