One of President Biden’s first acts in office was signing Executive Order No. 13990 on January 20, 2021. The order re-set the course of U.S. energy policy in response to the global emergency of climate change and growing energy demand.
Since then, U.S policy has been to phase out greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels in favor of non-fossil fuel “renewables” as soon as possible. As a result, there has been a massive political and PR push to develop new sources of wind energy, specifically in the oceans.
Many other countries have developed offshore wind energy, but hardly any of that has been in the U.S. Unfortunately, the push to quickly develop offshore wind energy has become the latest political fad, even a cure-all in some minds, for meeting the nation’s vast renewable energy needs, at least in coastal states.
This faith is often misplaced and has little basis in reality.
The federal Minerals Management Service that used to aggressively push for offshore oil platforms, now rebranded the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), has now been charged, first under Executive Order No. 14008 (January 27, 2021) and then in major energy policy statements and directives (March 29, 2021), with the ambitious task of nationwide permitting of 30 gigawatts (GW) of new offshore wind energy by 2030.
By comparison, the world’s total supply of offshore wind energy was only about 35.3 GW in 2020 according to the Global Wind Energy Council, although it is growing, especially in Europe.
The state of California currently has a new policy (AB 525 and SB 100) in place to develop 3 GW of offshore wind energy by 2030 and 10-15 GW by 2045. The state of Oregon recently passed HB 3375 (2021), requiring feasibility studies of floating offshore wind development of 3 GW by 2030, working toward far more ambitious goals thereafter.
Meanwhile, no industry, except perhaps the insurance business, has more at stake under accelerating climate change scenarios than commercial fishing. We are already facing the impacts of rising sea levels; ocean acidification; changing fish migration patterns; escalating dangers of major storms; massive ocean heat waves that disrupt whole ocean food chains, and potential widespread marine species declines, with too many of them heading toward extinction.
We understand in our gut the need to decarbonize and eliminate excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as fast as possible—but also responsibly.
Our fishing industry is by no means opposed to offshore wind energy development in itself. As an industry we are painfully aware of ever-worsening climate change-driven disasters. Our industry is, in fact, in the front lines of this crisis. We are, however, opposed to building massive wind farms in ill-advised places, especially with little forethought or effort to prevent environmental or user conflict problems that in the end may close us out of our traditional fisheries and fishing grounds.
But so far, in the political rush to do something—anything —that looks like a response to escalating climate change, no one is asking the harder question: “Is offshore wind development the most cost-effective and fastest way to decarbonize our economy?”
In other words, should our society be investing heavily in these massive ocean development schemes at all—or is there a better option?
Should We Do It Just Because We Can?
There are two main kinds of offshore wind developments: (a) nearshore turbines, built on fixed platforms pile-driven directly into the sea floor—necessarily limited to shallow waters—and (b) floating platforms that can be deployed much further out and in much deeper waters, where the wind is generally more steady, but where the chances of conflicts with other ocean users like us, not to mention with sea life generally, are greater.
It is true that there is great electrical power generation potential in wind energy, and that the winds are strongest and most reliable offshore. But offshore wind farms are also much harder and more expensive to build and maintain than more “traditional” onshore wind farms.
This is why there are already some 60,000 utility-scale wind turbines installed in the U.S. as of September 2021—but only a handful of offshore turbines, and none are the floating-platform type.
But if our society is to decarbonize to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement targets and hope to stave off the worst of potential climate impacts, for any potential new energy project we have to consider at least three major factors: cost, timing and effectiveness. It seems to be technologically feasible to substitute wind-generated electricity for fossil fuel-generated electricity in decarbonizing—but who is asking the more basic question: “Is offshore wind development the most efficient, fastest and least costly pathway to get there?”
BOEM, following its current marching orders, is in the process of identifying several large ocean areas to be set aside for the offshore wind industry.
Off California, there are two “Wind Energy Areas” which soon will be leased and privatized for commercial wind energy farms. And in Washington state in April 2022, Trident Wind submitted an unsolicited request to BOEM to lease 338.05 square miles on the Outer Continental Shelf to install a large, floating wind farm about 40 miles offshore of Grays Harbor, capable of generating up to 3 GW (3,000 MW) of power.
Offshore wind energy platforms already exist in many other coastal countries, and the technology is definitely growing, as well as improving. But should society, and particularly the U.S. West Coast, heavily invest in this particular kind of renewable energy, or rather in its alternatives? And there are indeed viable alternatives.
Offshore Wind vs. Inland Wind
Indeed, several recent studies question whether reliance on offshore wind energy is going to be cost effective at all, compared to other renewable energy alternatives such as more traditional inland wind farms. Looking closely at the pros and cons of offshore wind power development versus inland wind power development, here is a rough comparison:
Offshore Wind Farms
1. Siting: As compared to energy developments on land, these two types of ocean-based wind farms will necessarily have to be built much farther from the nation’s main power grid, which is all far inland, including having to plug into the grid in rural, coastal areas with relatively small grid carrying capacity. Upgrading the power grid itself will costs many billions of dollars just in order to get that wind power to the onshore consumer. Who will pay those costs?
2. Scale: Offshore wind turbine platforms are truly huge, and creating and building them is very industrially intensive, requiring major retooling of shipyards and ports all up and down the coast. It’s the same with shipping them to their location and installing them. This all takes very expensive, very specialized equipment, and will require expansions of port facilities that may not be possible in many small ports. Who will pay for those port expansions?
3. Line Losses: The closer the generation plant is to the ultimate consumer, the cheaper the power and the more cost-effective it is to produce. The laws of physics are unforgiving, and one of those laws is that the longer the cable has to be to deliver the power, the more line-losses (essentially, friction) there will be, thus cutting down the efficiency (and cost-effectiveness) of the operation. If the goal is to get more electricity to energy-hungry San Francisco, for instance, it makes little sense to generate that power hundreds of miles north in Humboldt Bay and suffer not only huge transmission costs, but also major line losses, rather than generate that power much closer to where it will be used.
4. Other Effects: Offshore wind farms, particularly the “floating” kind further offshore, use hundreds of miles of cable and anchor lines. Whale entanglements could be a real problem. Their operations also would generate noise, electromagnetic fields and other impacts on marine ecosystems with still unknown consequences. They also could be disruptive of fisheries and commercial ocean shipping lanes. Since ships traversing these wind farms could entangle in their cable networks, their towers would be navigation hazards and their spinning metal blades could create radar interference, always a safety concern.
Major marine ecosystem impacts from offshore wind farms are likely, but still largely unknown, and may depend upon the scale and positioning of each wind farm.
One previously unknown cumulative effect has already been observed in some European wind farms—sucking out wind energy with wind turbines means an entropic slowing of the average wind speed in the area, which in turn may reduce the power of local coastal cold-water upwellings to supply vital food and nutrients to the whole coastal ecosystem.
In short, too many wind farms in too small an ocean area might turn it into a biological desert.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) has raised many of these ecosystem and fisheries concerns with BOEM. See for instance the PFMC’s June 2022 meeting Briefing Book at Agenda Item C-3, Attachment 1 (Draft PFMC letter to BOEM on Oregon Offshore Wind Call Areas), and Attachment 2 (Proposed Policy Guidance for Offshore Development Activities) at www.pcouncil.org.
The PFMC is trying hard to get on top of these issues to protect our fisheries. Both of these documents are likely to have been approved for sending by the time you read this article.
Onshore Wind Farms
1. Siting: Onshore wind farms can be located in many places, including on working farms and positioned on fixed platforms that are much more stable and easily accessible for repair and maintenance. As compared to the inherent dangers of boarding and operating on a moving platform in potentially rough seas, operational issues of inland wind farms are minimal.
1. Scale: The infrastructure to produce, ship and install onshore wind turbines already exists and its problems have already been well worked out.
2. Line Losses: Inland wind farms can be constructed much closer to electricity-hungry urban centers, which would reduce line losses and improve the cost-effectiveness of these operations as compared to more distant offshore wind generation.
3. Other Effects: There are other environmental impacts from onshore wind farms, particularly bird deaths from spinning turbine blades. But these impacts have been well studied, and mitigation measures (such as coloring the turbine blades to be more visible to migrating birds) are already being implemented.
4. Offshore vs. Onshore Wind Farm Cost Differences: At least one recent analysis (Graybill, 2022, cited below) found that, once all costs are accounted for, floating offshore wind development costs about twice as much as fixed-bottom ocean wind turbines and about four times the cost of the typical inland, land-based wind power platforms.
The analysis also found that floating offshore wind development is about six times the cost of land-based solar panel farms per megawatt. And furthermore, solar power is getting cheaper as well as more efficient by the year, so this cost difference is expected to grow.
Solar power as well as wind power operations both can use otherwise idle farms and desert lands. Each also can be used in tandem with working farmlands, generating additional income for the farmer. There are also emerging new co-uses of farms and solar energy, such as covering irrigation ditches with solar panels that both generate power and prevent evaporation.
And finally, the centralized, heavily industrialized fossil fuel-era model that giant wind farms are trying to fit themselves into, may itself be obsolete.
There is a growing “local microgrid” movement that advocates generating decentralized solar and wind energy house-by-house, and neighborhood-by-neighborhood, which would make big, capital-intensive, centralized, less resilient and corporate-owned public utilities unnecessary.
So it’s just not enough to ask if offshore wind development to the extremes proposed by the federal government—at least 30 GW of new energy by 2030 —is feasible. It is, and the technology does exist.
But the real question should be: is it a wise choice? Is this ocean wind power renewable energy development route going to result in the fastest as well as least costly pathway to decarbonization? Or is it just the latest boondoggle political fad that will lead to major damages at great cost to our coastal ecosystems. commercial fisheries, fishing-dependent communities and our nation’s food security?
In other words, our industry needs to keep asking the more fundamental question: “How does offshore wind development compare to keeping these platforms on shore? And how does wind energy development generally compare to other forms of renewable energy, such as solar, geothermal or [fill in the blank here]?
So far, the answer appears to be that intensive development of offshore wind to harness ocean winds for electrical power might well be the most costly, and therefore least effective, of all the existing renewable energy development pathways to speedy decarbonization —and worse, that it would likely result in great costs to our fisheries, fishing communities and the nation’s sustainable seafood supply.
We Have to Shake Our Fossil Energy Habit: Is Floating Offshore Wind in Oregon the Best Solution?, Mike Graybill (29 March 2022). YouTube: https://youtu.be/QjleARnvu5A
Wind Energy Fact Sheet, Center for Sustainable Systems, Univ. of Michigan:
Glen Spain is the NW Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). His office is: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370. Phone: (541) 689-2000; email: email@example.com.
Andy Colonna is a retired commercial fisherman, a PCFFA/IFR consultant and contributor to the research for this article.