By Michael E. Webber and Hugh Daigle 5 minutes Read
Today, the US has only two operational offshore wind farms, off the coast of Rhode Island and North Carolina, with a combined generation 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 there are many more projects under development, especially along the Atlantic coast.
The Biden administration has identified two zones for offshore wind development in the Gulf of Mexico, which have so far been clearly 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 supply 10 million homes with carbon-free electricity.
As energy researchers based in Texas, we see this as an exciting new phase in our nation’s ongoing clean energy transition. In our view, offshore wind energy in the Gulf of Mexico offers a unique opportunity for a geographic region with a strong energy workforce and infrastructure to help meet society’s need for reliable low-carbon energy.
Why go offshore?
Onshore wind power has seen remarkable growth in the US over the past 15 years, including Texas, the nation’s largest wind-generating state. The relative ease of licensing and placement of 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 the demand for water for cooling — effects associated with power plants burning coal, oil or natural gas.
But onshore wind also has disadvantages. Winds are often weakest during the hottest hours of summer, when air conditioners work hard to keep people cool. And many of the best wind energy zones are far from electricity demand centers. For example, most of the wind farms here in the Lone Star State are located on the highlands of western Texas and were only built after the state spent billions of dollars on long-distance transmission lines to move their power to where it’s needed.
Solar energy and batteries can solve some of these problems. But generating wind at sea also offers many advantages.
Just as onshore wind 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 farms are close to the demand for electricity. This is especially true in the Gulf of Mexico, where major cities such as Houston and New Orleans are located and a large concentration of petrochemical facilities and ports. Power companies can use submarine cables to bring wind power to industrial facilities, instead of building hundreds of miles of overhead wires, with associated disputes over priority and land access.
It is important that offshore wind is complementary to onshore wind. As airspeeds in West Texas slow on a hot summer afternoon, coastal winds pick up, helping to meet peak summer demand and improve grid reliability.
The offshore wind energy market is already robust worldwide, but until now it was practically non-existent in the US. Abundant land here has boosted the growth of onshore wind, but curbed a rush to the water.
That’s changing with stricter setback regulations in leading wind states like Iowa, which limit how close to homes turbines can be placed, driving up construction costs and limiting the availability of acceptable sites. Transmission capacity limits on the U.S. electrical grid also make it more difficult to market wind-generated electrons.
Welcome to the Gulf, all of you
Thanks to these development trends, plus measures in the climate law that increase support for offshore wind, it seems that a US offshore wind industry is finally ready for prime time. We see the Gulf of Mexico as a particularly attractive place to do business.
Compared to cold and bitter conditions in regions such as the North Sea, North Atlantic and the coast of Japan, where offshore wind is already generated, 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 solid-bottomed 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 seafloor topography has a more even and gentle slope than areas already under consideration for development off the coast of Virginia. This means that fixed-bottom wind turbines can be used in more places instead of floating systems, reducing complexity.
Importantly, the Gulf Coast has a robust offshore industry established to serve oil and gas producers, with many specialist companies offering services such as underwater welding, platform manufacturing, and helicopter and boat services to get people and equipment out to sea. Gulf of Mexico oil and gas production supported an estimated 345,000 jobs in 2019.
Wind farms in the Gulf can use existing infrastructure. There are nearly 1,200 miles of existing submarine power cables that can transfer wind energy to the coast. Wind generation can also be incorporated into a larger energy system that includes green hydrogen generation and storage and carbon sequestration.
A boost for workers and vulnerable communities
We also believe that offshore wind energy can contribute to achieving environmental justice objectives. Generating more clean, carbon-free electricity could displace refineries and factories that process fossil fuels and generate power from them. These facilities are disproportionately harmful to the health of communities of color in cities like Houston and in the US.
The development of wind energy in the Gulf also presents an opportunity for a smooth labor transition as the US gradually reduces its dependence on fossil fuels. Louisiana is already drafting regulations for offshore wind power in state waters and is seeking federal funding for a regional clean hydrogen hub along with Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Green means go
Power project licensing is notoriously slow at the federal level, and wind power projects in federal waters can take several years to complete. But projects in state waters — extending three nautical miles from shore in most areas and nine miles from shore in Texas — could progress more quickly.
Much depends on whether energy states like Texas and Louisiana see opportunities to expand their reputation as energy leaders into offshore wind. As we see it, an offshore wind in the Gulf would be good for the region, the country and the global climate.