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The Perfect Clean Energy for the Atlantic Coast

You don’t have to walk far from our office here in downtown Boston to experience the powerful winds of the Atlantic. It just takes a quick stroll down to Long Wharf, which sticks out into the water toward Logan Airport, to find yourself leaning into powerful gusts coming off the ocean.

The salty sea air blowing off the Atlantic makes walks along the harbor one of my favorite ways to refresh after a few too many hours staring at a computer screen. In a new report released this week, we looked at how these same powerful winds also hold a key to our region’s energy future.

Wind Power to Spare: The Enormous Energy Potential of Atlantic Offshore Wind is an assessment of the energy potential of the winds that blow off the Atlantic coast. Understanding the potential of these winds is important for a region that uses one quarter of the nation’s energy and is working to end its dependence on fossil fuels. For coastal communities, this holds a special urgency: Global warming is already responsible for several inches of sea rise just in the last 20 years, which already have raised the risk of flooding in many coastal communities, in some cases dramatically.

The good news is that Atlantic offshore wind is just about the perfect clean energy resource for our region. Our analysis, based on technical energy assessments done by the U.S. Department of Energy, shows that Atlantic wind has the potential to produce all the power our region needs. Even after accounting for areas inappropriate for offshore wind, like shipping lanes, marine reserves, or areas where the seafloor is too deep for current technology, we found that there is enough Atlantic offshore wind energy potential to supply four times the current electricity consumption of the Atlantic coast region, from Florida to Maine.

That abundance of energy potential means we can also turn to offshore wind for activities not currently powered by electricity – in particular, vehicle transportation and heating our homes and businesses. We estimated the new electricity demand that would be created by switching to electricity for these activities. We found that even after adding the new electricity demand created by using electric vehicles and modern electric heating systems, Atlantic offshore wind could still supply twice as much electricity as the Atlantic states use each year.

Other characteristics of the Atlantic Ocean also make it perfect for supplying our future energy needs. Along the coast, much of the Atlantic has both relatively shallow seafloor and high wind speeds, ideal for today’s offshore wind turbine technology. And the areas with the best potential are also close to our biggest cities where we use the most energy, like Boston, New York City, and Washington D.C.

Finally, offshore wind technology is ready to spin. Today’s wind turbines produce more energy, in less space, and for less money, than ever before. We found that each turbine built in 2016 at the Block Island Wind Farm off of Rhode Island – America’s first offshore wind farm – produces 30 times as much energy each year as the first offshore turbines built off Europe in the 1990s. And the cost of energy from offshore wind fell by 27 percent from 2012 to 2017, to a cost that is comparable to energy from a new coal-fired power plant.

Of course, offshore wind will not need to supply all of the region’s power by itself. In recent years, solar power and onshore wind have both taken off in many of the Atlantic states, now generating enough energy to power nearly 2 million homes, 19 times more than just a decade ago. But one of the best clean energy resources in the world is sitting in our backyard – and today, is still almost entirely untapped. If we are to repower with clean energy and take on our biggest environmental and public health challenges, that will have to change.

Photo of Block Island Wind Farm: National Renewable Energy Laboratory