The United States currently relies heavily on fossil fuels to heat our homes, drive 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% of its electricity from wind, solar and geothermal sources, up from about 0.6% two decades ago. America’s abundant renewable energy resources, coupled with energy efficiency measures and technological advances that make renewable energy cheaper and better than ever, open the possibility of transitioning our entire economy to run on 100% renewable energy.
A massive and underutilized energy resource just off our coasts can help us to get there: offshore wind. Our new report, Offshore Wind for America: The Promise and Potential of Clean Energy off Our Coasts, showcases the potential of offshore wind and describes how policymakers can accelerate its development to provide clean energy where it’s needed most.
It’s hard to overstate the size of the nation’s offshore wind resource. The United States has the technical potential to produce more than 7,200 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity from offshore wind, which is almost twice the amount of electricity the U.S. consumed in 2019 and about 90% of the amount of electricity the nation would consume in 2050 if we transitioned our buildings, transportation system and industry to run on electricity instead of fossil fuels.
U.S. offshore wind technical potential and electricity usage (electrification scenario based on research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Nineteen of the 29 U.S. states with offshore wind potential have the technical capacity to produce more electricity from offshore wind than they used in 2019. Because of the environmental implications, the U.S. neither will, nor should, develop all of its technical potential for offshore wind energy. But the sheer size of our resource illustrates the critical contribution that offshore wind can make toward an energy system powered by 100% renewable energy.
Every coastal region of the United States has offshore wind potential, but the opportunities for offshore wind development – and the challenges it faces – vary by region. The Atlantic region – from Maine to Florida – has a wide, shallow continental shelf and consistently strong wind, giving it the largest technical potential of any region. With many major cities on the East Coast, offshore wind has the added benefit of providing power in close proximity to sources of demand.
The Pacific region – including Hawaii but excluding Alaska – has very little shallow water, but with the use of floating turbines could produce a considerable amount of electricity from offshore wind. Offshore wind is viable in the Gulf region – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama – and the region’s shallow water makes offshore wind turbines relatively easy to install. But the area’s relatively low wind speeds and many conflicting uses reduce the potential resource of the area. Like the Pacific states, the Great Lakes region – Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin – has limited shallow water, but it is also hampered by winter ice floes that could damage floating turbines, meaning that offshore wind is only able to make a limited contribution to the region’s energy needs.
The future of offshore wind is bright, in part because the technology is already widely deployed around the world and continuing 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. Offshore wind technology has also improved: The average generating 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. Today’s turbines are hundreds of feet taller and more efficient at generating electricity even than turbines installed a decade ago. They are being installed in much deeper water, and tens of miles farther from shore.
New turbine models, which will be available in the next few years, are even more impressive. They promise even higher efficiency and even more generation capacity and could help reduce the costs of offshore wind while meeting more of our energy needs.
The United States is ready to take advantage of the advancements in the industry and the potential of offshore wind. There are already many projects in the development pipeline: In addition to the two operational pilot projects, there are 34 proposals for offshore wind development, including 27 projects in various stages of planning and development. These projects are on sites with a total potential of more than 26 GW of capacity – nearly as much as the entire world currently has installed. As the U.S. offshore wind market grows, it 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 work to accelerate and streamline offshore wind projects while ensuring transparency, environmental responsibility and regional cooperation.
With supportive policy, offshore wind could grow to take its place as a crucial piece of a 100% renewable energy system.
Photo credit: Ionna22 via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0
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.