Decarbonization requires many things: More efficiency, more conservation, less wasteful and redundant consumption, relentless innovation, and a whole lot more electricity. Dumping fossil fuels and transitioning to induction stoves, heat pumps, electric vehicles, et cetera, will require adding significant additional amounts of generating capacity, and it has to be done in a hurry. All power plants fired by coal or natural gas will have to be replaced with clean sources: wind, solar, geothermal, storage, and (perhaps) nuclear.
The U.S. Department of Energy has calculated the need at around three times today’s total U.S. generation capacity of 1,100 gigawatts. Technical critics argue that there will be synergies that mean only a doubling will be necessary. As anyone knows who has lived long enough to have seen supposedly solid predictions turn out wildly wrong, this is an argument that can only be settled as the future unfolds. All kinds of potential surprises lurk.
What we know for sure is that we absolutely must get off fossil fuels with no further dilly-dallying if we expect to have any chance of mitigating the worst impacts of the climate emergency. We also know that even with much improved efficiency we will have to generate some amount of electricity well above what is now the case. That’s so even if activists urging people to adopt a more subdued attitude toward consumption actually succeed at spurring more widespread Earth-friendly behavior. The Biden administration is putting a lot of our money into speeding up the adoption of several varieties of clean energy, with lots of policy assistance and interagency cooperation directed at getting new power sources installed. Offshore wind is a key one of those.
This is not merely about adding clean electricity. The president’s advisers have predicted that installing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2035 will also generate 77,000 jobs and help build a domestic supply chain for this industry in which the United States is way behind Europe and China. Currently, the largest U.S. offshore wind farm has a capacity of just 30 megawatts. The only other one has a 12-megawatt capacity. Together, that’s enough to power about 25,000 average homes, a long way from 30 gigawatts. But as ambitious as the White House’s offshore wind goals may seem—even audacious in the face of Republican and other opposition—they don’t go half far enough.
There’s a new report from the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley: “2035 And Beyond—The Report: Abundant, Affordable Offshore Wind Can Accelerate Our Clean Electricity Future.” Gridlab and Energy Innovation worked with the research team. The study says that in a “High Ambition” scenario, an American-based offshore wind industry supply chain could provide 390,000 jobs by 2050 and add 750 gigawatts of generation capacity. That is 25% of the tripling from current capacity that the DOE thinks is necessary for full U.S. electrification.
But getting there, the researchers state, will take robust policy support and vast amounts of capital investment. There are also other obstacles to overcome, including supply chain hurdles and other solvable but time-consuming difficulties in scaling up domestic offshore wind manufacturing, an area in which the U.S. is basically starting from scratch.
Wind potential certainly won’t be one of the obstacles. If you include the Great Lakes, the U.S. has a huge coastline, with what the report says is “the technical potential of nearly 4,000 [gigawatts] of offshore wind capacity.” Only about 1,000 gigawatts of that potential capacity is considered highly productive, but that’s nearly as much as the total U.S. generating capacity from all sources right now.
In two previous 2035 reports from the researchers, a cost-effective path to 90% clean energy by 2035 was found to be feasible. The latest report “builds on previous assessments, examining potential pathways to 90% clean electricity by 2035 and 95% clean electricity by 2050 and meeting increased load from the electrification of buildings, transportation, and industry, while deploying significant amounts of new offshore wind capacity.”
The report is brimful of details for those so inclined. Here’s the key premise:
Achieving net zero emissions in the U.S. requires the installation of over 3,500GW of new renewable resources through 2050. The annual deployment targets across all scenarios are ambitious, requiring 100 GW of new land-based solar and wind deployed each year through 2050 on average, and nearly 40 GW of new offshore wind each year between 2035-2050. While the U.S. installed a record 28 GW of renewable capacity in 2021, achieving net zero goals without offshore wind will require the nation to install land-based wind and solar at five times that rate. Increasing offshore wind deployments would reduce the land-based installation rate to three or four times 2021 levels.
Installing 40 gigawatts a year after 2035 is a long way from installing 30 gigawatts over the next dozen years. Like so much else, we must ensure that the federal government performs its part in a green transition, which requires bold action on many fronts. And ensuring that requires electing more politicians who understand the existential nature of our predicament and go about applying carrots and sticks in a manner designed to lessen the thrashings that the rapidly changing climate is going to deliver.
Mike O’ Boyle, senior director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, said in a statement, “The technical ability to build out America’s offshore wind sector and enjoy all the benefits of clean, reliable, affordable electricity is there. We just need political leadership to pass the right policies.”
You can find out a lot more here and at the Wind Energy Technologies Office about the Biden administration’s wind policies.