Clean energy jobs should get a boost from Biden’s offshore wind plan

The struggling United States power grid has finally undergone a major upgrade. Last week the Biden administration announced a plan that, among other things, will focus on connecting more clean energy sources to the grid and installing more high-voltage cables throughout the country to transport this energy to where it is needed.

At first glance, it might seem like the plan is simply building on the foundation laid by Biden when he signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill in November. Parts of the framework posted last week focus on minute details that can make you foggy, like how to make clean energy projects on public lands more efficient and vague mentions of support for rural clean energy expansion. . But what’s really worth paying attention to is Biden’s goals for offshore wind power, which is an important power source for regions like the US Northeast that lack the space and sufficient sunlight that solar power depends on. This is where the new plan turns from mundane to ambitious, and it could be an indication of how the administration intends to address climate change, energy and jobs at the same time.

Offshore wind power works in a similar way to how land-based wind turbines work (the wind spins the turbine blades around a rotor, which in turn spins a generator to generate electricity) – only offshore turbines are rooted in the sea floor tens of miles from the coast, where they can catch strong sea ​​winds. These winds abound in the North Atlantic, which is why the Biden administration focused its initial efforts on offshore wind power there.

To date, there are only seven offshore wind turbines in the US – five in wind power plant Block Island in Rhode Island and two more set up for testing in Virginia. But on February 23 the federal government auction offshore wind power is leased to utilities or offshore wind power developers in an ocean region called New York Bay off the coast of New York and New Jersey. The owners of these leases will then be able to build wind farms in the area that produce up to 7 gigawatts of energy – enough to power about 2 million homes – requiring 600 to 700 turbines.

“Offshore wind in the Western Hemisphere has never seen anything like it,” Mike Jacobs, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Recode.

Offshore wind power has historically been the prerogative of Europe, which is already built 25 gigawatts of offshore wind power in the last couple of decades. The upcoming 7 gigawatt lease auction will bring renewable energy generation to the northeast significantly, and this is just the first of many: the Biden administration has said it intends to boost offshore wind power to 30 gigawatts by 2030. While this is still a small fraction of the roughly 1,000 gigawatts that Americans use each year, it will still be a significant contribution to helping the country move away from coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants.

It is important to note that Biden’s plan is not just about increasing clean energy production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it also opens the door to a clean energy economy. These 600 or 700 wind turbines will require people to build the turbine components, ship them offshore and service them after installation. To make this happen, the White House and the Department of Transportation aim to create nearly 80,000 wind-related jobs by 2030 by investing in ports on the east coast – some of them even in Albany, New York, from where turbine parts will be shipped. . down the Hudson River to New York Bay.

“The administration seems to understand that energy is at the heart of a complex problem,” said Alexandra von Meyer, director of the electricity grid program at California Institute of Energy and the Environment at the University of California at Berkeley. “It’s about the welfare of people and jobs.”

It’s also a smart political move: tie the fate of 80,000 jobs (nearly double number of coal jobs currently in the country) before an offshore wind could shield the plan from, say, a Republican victory in 2024. However, Biden’s plan could fail depending on the upcoming election results. While the lease sale occurs in February, the permitting process alone could take up to three years, after which construction of the turbines would take another two years. That’s more than enough time for a climate-denying home secretary with other political agendas to take over and thwart the plan.

Wind turbines at the Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island, which generates enough power to power 17,000 homes.
Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

Offshore wind has its detractors too. New England local fishermen united with an oil industry lobby group in December opposing Vineyard Wind, a proposed 84-turbine wind farm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts waters; the claim filed by the fishing industry is still pending in court. Turbines, fishermen say, can adversely affect marine life. They are also concerned that turbine towers could interfere with radars and safety zones near turbines could affect their ability to reach fishing areas. The long-term impact of wind turbines on marine life is still not clear, but to study in the North Sea in Europe have shown that turbine bases can act as artificial reefs for animals such as mussels. At the end of last year, the Ministry of Energy awarded Duke University is receiving a $7.5 million grant to study the impact of offshore wind on marine life, the results of which should provide a more complete picture of how turbines can affect fisheries. Meanwhile, the federal bureau of ocean energy management is looking for workarounds, so sale notice for New York Harbor includes provisions to assist fishermen such as 2.8 mile wide transit corridors for fishing vessels.

The problems don’t stop there: even if wind turbines are built, and even if their potential impact on marine life is minimized, the energy they generate must go somewhere. Transmission lines – those high-voltage cables you see strung on steel poles across vast stretches of the country – are usually built by regional transmission organizations, and Jacobs says they may not be enough to carry all the power these new turbines produce. .

This is exactly the problem that Germany faced in 2020 when lack of bandwidth in Northern Germany meant the region had to funnel some of its wind power to neighboring countries instead. “They had a lot of offshore wind coming to the beach,” Jacobs said. “And then the German utility industry said, ‘Oh, we really weren’t ready for this.’

The Biden administration appears to want to avoid a similar situation in the United States. That’s why the bipartisan infrastructure bill includes transmission line funding, and the administration has announced that the Department of Energy is launching an initiative called Building a Better Grid that will act as a kind of central planning authority to improve the grid. But it’s unclear whether this power line buildup will happen by the time the offshore wind kicks in in New York Harbor, and the administration makes no mention of distribution lines or low-voltage wires that bring electricity to homes and businesses. They are usually built in the US by local utilities, explained Kiri Baker, associate professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, and are often only replaced when they fail completely.

“You can have all the clean energy and all the high-voltage lines you want,” Baker told Recode via email, “but without a resilient distribution network, we will still face life-threatening power outages due to more extreme weather events.” .

However, von Meyer remains an optimist. Combining green energy with jobs and new transmission lines that will better withstand climate change is an exciting first step, she says. The Biden administration “understood that there was actually a kind of triple necessity: addressing the climate problem, building resilience, and building equity. And I think they realized that this is an opportunity with pure energy to solve all three problems together.”

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