The US onshore wind market has seen remarkable expansion over the past year. But it’s offshore growth that’s hitting the headlines, even under the fossil-loving new US administration. December 2016 saw the $300-million Block Island project, the firstever US offshore wind farm, go into production. As offshore wind costs fall, other projects are bursting into life.

With a third of the country’s potential offshore wind resource of 4,200GW, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the east coast of the US has abundant shallow waters perfect for European-style fixed foundations. “Seabed and wind conditions in the US are ideal for existing offshore wind technologies, particularly on the east coast,” says Lauren Burm, Dong Energy’s US spokesperson.

New market

In 2010, then-president Barack Obama’s administration kickstarted Atlantic offshore wind development with a lease programme under the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The first auction ran in 2013 and 11 leases have been granted. In 2016, New York governor Andrew Cuomo committed to generate 50% of electricity from renewables and develop 2.4GW of offshore wind by 2030. Norway’s Statoil is working on the 800MW first phase of the New York zone, which it leased in late 2016.

With 14 bidders and a final price of $42.5 million, the marathon 33-round auction demonstrates the huge level of interest in offshore wind. Other European developers are involved, such as Iberdrola subsidiary Avangrid, which bid highest for North Carolina’s Kitty Hawk wind project, and Dong Energy, the world’s most prolific offshore wind developer.

“These are players with vast resources and immense, hard-won experience,” says Liz Gordon, director of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance. “That will help us start much further along that learning and cost-reduction curve than Europe did.”

Permits and process

But winning a lease is only the first step for these projects. Developers must gain permits, subsidies and other approvals needed to start construction. To install a met mast or finalise construction and operations plans, they must work with federal agencies such as BOEM. Unlocking funds for infrastructure usually requires satisfying federal and state bodies; Block Island’s staging areas benefitted from a $22.3-million transport department grant to upgrade port facilities.

But it is state-level organisations that must agree on Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) or allocate shares of the $1.9 billion Offshore Wind Renewable Energy Credit (OREC) fund. These are essential to attract financing and guarantee a minimum MWh price. In May 2017, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved OREC payments for two projects totalling 368MW, the biggest state support commitment to offshore yet.

The death of the $2.6-billion, 468MW Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, which was mired in permit struggles, and other financing and legal obstructions for a decade, shows how dangerous resistance can be. In New Jersey, opposition from Governor Chris Christie meant Fisherman’s Energy Atlantic City missed out on the PPA it needed to receive Department of Energy funding. The project stalled at the end of 2016.

So developers need friends at state level, but require cooperation in Washington too. Support for a long-term extension of the 30% investment tax credit (ITC) for offshore wind is a prime example. Under current plans, this will be phased out by the end of the decade. Proposals before the US Senate aim to extend the ITC to cover the next 3GW of offshore wind. But current president Donald Trump is not a fan.

When Scotland planned an offshore farm close to his Aberdeen golf course, Trump acquired a virulent distaste for turbines. He has tweeted, “How many bald eagles did wind turbines kill today? They are an environmental and aesthetic disaster.”

Trump’s early moves as president included resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline and cutting Department of Energy renewable energy initiatives. The Trump administration notoriously appointed a climate change denier to run the Environmental Protection Authority and installed former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

Industry response

Republican-driven tax reforms and the threat of border tariffs are major federallevel worries. Uncertainty over the future cost of borrowing is already making it harder to attract project financing while tariffs could drive up turbine prices. How should the industry respond?

“The US governmental and regulatory system is complex, so any successful project requires support from leaders at the federal, state and local levels,” says Burm. “We are working at all levels to ensure all voices are heard at every level of government and within our communities.”

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) is affiliated with state groups such as the New York Offshore Wind Alliance. “We’re demonstrating to state legislators the breadth of support for offshore wind in their constituencies,” says Gordon. “We’re also educating them about the immense power and economic benefits that it represents.”

Job appeal

Creating jobs is wind’s most compelling argument. US investors are already involved overseas: Blackstone backed Germany’s Meerwind while Goldman Sachs owns 7% of Dong Energy. The wind sector accounts for 102,500 US jobs and the number is rising quickly. The country’s fastest-growing employment category is ‘wind turbine technician’, with an above-average percentage of jobs going to military veterans.

“We are a billion-dollar heavy industry that is set to build, employ and invest,” says Nancy Sopko, the AWEA’s director of offshore wind and federal legislative affairs. “We have a great story to tell to this administration.”

More than 500 factories across 41 states currently make and assemble wind turbine components. Over 80% of wind towers, and around 70% of blades and hubs are made in the US; 85% of turbine nacelles are assembled there. Wind offers exactly the kind of skilled manufacturing jobs Trump said he would bring back to the US.

Engineering titan GE is a major US manufacturer and effectively moved into offshore wind with its purchase of Alstom in 2015. Alstom’s Haliade turbines are already in action at Block Island. Turbine manufacturers like Vestas and Siemens would open local factories if there was sufficient demand. The NREL predicts offshore wind projects will create 31,000 jobs in the mid-Atlantic area alone. Just as offshore wind has helped resuscitate European ports like Bremerhaven, Cuxhaven and Hull, so too it can boost employment in struggling US east coast towns from South Carolina to Maine. The 368MW already approved in Maryland will yield over $1.8 billion of in-state spending, create 9,700 new direct and indirect jobs, and, over 20 years, contribute $74 million in state tax revenues.

Learn from Europe

The example of Europe shows substantial investment gives the best chance of a strong industry. US Wind plans over $100 million of industrial facilities on the site of a former steel mill to serve its 750MW Sparrows Point project.

“We’re trying to bring a new $16-billion net export industry sector to Maryland,” says Paul Rich, US Wind’s director of project development. “Each new fabrication facility will generate $30–50 million of investment in infrastructure and thousands of trained workers.”

The primacy of Danish and German firms in US offshore projects amply demonstrates wind’s export potential. The UK is also involved with Iberdrola subsidiary ScottishPower Renewables recently snapping up stakes in two US projects.

Ensuring energy independence in electricity generation is another argument in wind’s favour. Though it is close to being self-sufficient in gas, the US still imports gas along with the uranium that fuels 19% of its power output. With offshore wind’s prices dropping to parity with gas and coal by 2025, serious investment would secure domestic electricity supply, and free up shale gas for export.

Though Trump wants to return to coalfired generation, it is cheap, relatively clean domestic shale gas that’s killing off the coal industry. Scrapping emission limits won’t change that. And if the US does keep to the Paris climate accord, wind’s low carbon attributes make it even more attractive.

Government support

So will logic triumph over ideology? So far, Trump’s officers have been encouraging. Perhaps Dong and Statoil’s roots in offshore oil and gas are helping convince administration pragmatists.

In March 2017, US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hailed Avangrid’s payment of $9 million for a project lease off North Carolina – the first under the new administration – as “a big win”. Energy Secretary Rick Perry helped turn Texas into a wind powerhouse and repeatedly invoked the topic during his Senate confirmation hearing. The acting director of BOEM, Walter Cruickshank, has also overridden state-level opposition to leasing auctions.

Most revealing is Trump’s own past support for wind. During his 2015 campaign in Iowa, which generates around 30% of its electricity from onshore wind, he said he supported federal subsidies for wind power, describing it as “an amazing thing”. Like many of his beliefs, Trump’s hatred of wind may well turn out to be optional if political support requires it. A recent survey from Pew found 65% of Americans believe the US should prioritise renewables.

We are a billion-dollar heavy industry that is set to build, employ and invest. We have a great story to tell to this administration.

Long-term battle

The clean-power goals adopted by more than half of US states will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

The same goes for the projects already underway; their long lead times means Trump could well be out of office before any federal approval is required. Burm notes: “Our business is not dependent on – or driven by – election cycles.”

On the east coast, the race for leases continues. BOEM will hold another auction for two projects off the coast of Massachusetts, triggered by unsolicited applications by Statoil and PNE Wind, and more development is expected in New York. Many politicians and businessmen see the writing on the wall. Wind and solar are in, coal and oil are on the way out. Trump – and the US – need to get on the bus before it leaves without them.