The United States currently relies heavily on fossil fuels to heat our homes, fuel our cars, power our machines and produce electricity, harming our health and our climate.
Across the country, however, America is beginning to embrace the promise of clean, renewable energy. Today, the U.S. gets about 11.5 percent of our electricity from wind, solar and geothermal sources, up from about 0.6 percent two decades ago. America’s abundant renewable energy resources, coupled with energy efficiency measures and technological advances that have made renewable energy cheaper and better than ever, open the possibility of transitioning our entire economy to run on 100 percent renewable energy.
To get there, we must take advantage of a massive and underutilized energy resource just off our coasts: offshore wind.
America’s offshore wind resources are big enough to produce more electricity than the nation currently consumes. To make use of these resources, policy-makers should remove the barriers slowing down the growth of the offshore wind industry, and support and hasten that growth to provide clean energy where it’s needed most.
Offshore wind has the technical capacity to power the country with clean energy. The United States has the technical potential to produce more than 7,200 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity from offshore wind, which is almost two times the amount of electricity the U.S. consumed in 2019 and about 90 percent of the amount of electricity the nation would consume in 2050 if we electrified our buildings, transportation system and industry, transitioning them to run on electricity instead of fossil fuels.
Nineteen of the 29 states with offshore wind potential have the technical capacity to produce more electricity from offshore wind than they used in 2019. And 11 of them have the technical capacity to produce more electricity than they would use in 2050 if the country electrified homes and commercial buildings, transportation and industry. While the U.S. neither will, nor should, develop all of its technical potential for offshore wind energy, the sheer size of the resource illustrates the critical contribution that offshore wind can make toward an energy system powered by 100 percent renewable energy.
The Atlantic region — from Maine to Florida — has the technical potential to produce almost 4,600 TWh of electricity each year, more than four times as much power as those states used in 2019, and almost twice as much as they would use in 2050 if the country underwent maximal electrification, based on estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The Atlantic region, especially the Northeast, has strong, consistent wind and a wide, shallow continental shelf, making deployment of offshore wind relatively straightforward using existing technology.
The Pacific region — including Hawaii but excluding Alaska — has the technical potential to produce almost 869 TWh of electricity each year from offshore wind, more than twice as much as it used in 2019, and almost 90 percent of what it is projected to use in 2050, assuming maximum electrification. The Pacific region has a very narrow continental shelf, resulting in much of the wind resource being in deep water and necessitating the use of floating turbines.
The Gulf region — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — has the technical potential to produce more than 1,400 TWh of electricity each year from offshore wind generation, more than twice the amount of electricity the region used in 2019 and over 20 percent more electricity than the region would use in 2050 assuming the country undergoes maximum possible electrification. The Gulf region’s low wind speeds and many conflicting uses reduce the area available for offshore wind development.
The Great Lakes region — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin — has the technical potential to produce 344 TWh of electricity each year from offshore wind generation, almost half as much as it used in 2019 and about one fifth as much as it is projected to use in 2050 after maximal electrification. The Great Lakes region is limited in usable area and hampered by winter ice floes that could damage floating turbines.
The technology is proven
Offshore wind technology has already been widely deployed in Europe and Asia, and continues to improve.
- There are more than 5,500 offshore turbines currently deployed around the world, and more than 27 gigawatts (GW) of installed generating capacity — enough to power 7.3 million U.S. homes.
- The average capacity of the turbines currently installed is more than 12 times larger than that of the turbines in the first offshore wind farm built in 1991, and today’s turbines are hundreds of feet taller and more efficient than even turbines installed in 2010. They are being installed in much deeper water, and tens of miles farther from shore.
- Turbines that will be available in the next few years promise a new level of efficiency and generation capacity and could help reduce the costs of offshore wind while helping it power more of our energy needs.
The United States already has many projects in the development pipeline. In addition to the two operational pilot projects, the 34 proposals for offshore wind development — including 27 projects in various stages of planning and development — have a total of about 26.1 GW of site capacity. The U.S. is set to see huge growth in offshore wind, which will help mature the industry and continue to drive down costs.
Offshore wind can help repower the U.S. with clean energy — but taking advantage of the opportunity will require support from policymakers and regulatory bodies. To help the industry grow, and to hasten the transition to renewable energy, governments and regulatory agencies at all levels should:
- Provide market certainty for offshore wind, as Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia have done by setting enforceable targets for offshore wind deployment.
- Support domestic supply chain development.
- Set national standards to ensure the environmental integrity of offshore wind projects and to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts to marine ecosystems and wildlife.
- Direct the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and relevant state agencies to accelerate the offshore wind development process while ensuring transparency and environmental responsibility.
- Increase and extend tax credits for offshore wind power.
- Plan for regional offshore wind development, including transmission infrastructure.
- Support research and development of new offshore wind technologies.
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Bryn Huxley-Reicher is a policy analyst at Frontier Group focusing on issues related to clean energy and the new economy. He has a BA in applied mathematics focused in earth and planetary sciences from Harvard University.