The United States power grid in a difficult situation has finally received some major upgrades. Last week, the Biden administration announced a plan that would, among other efforts, aim to put more clean energy sources online and install more high-voltage transmission cables nationwide to transfer that energy where it is needed.
On the surface, it could seem that the plan is only being built on the foundations that Biden laid when he signed the two-party law on infrastructure in November. Parts of the framework released last week focus on a variety of small details that could catch your eye, such as how to improve the efficiency of reviews of clean energy projects on public land and the vague mention of support for clean energy expansion in rural areas. But what is really worth paying attention to are Biden’s goals for offshore wind energy, which is an important source of energy for regions like the northeastern United States that lack space and enough sunlight on which solar energy depends. It is here that the new plan shifts from everyday to ambitious, and can be an indication of how the administration intends to address climate change, energy and jobs at the same time.
Offshore wind production works similarly to onshore wind turbines (the wind rotates turbine blades around a rotor, which in turn rotates a generator to produce electricity) – only popular turbines are rooted in the seabed tens of miles from shore, where they can capture strong oceanic winds. These winds are something that the North Atlantic has in abundance, which is why the Biden administration directs its initial wind efforts at sea there.
As of today, the U.S. has only seven offshore wind turbines – five at a wind farm near Block Island in Rhode Island, and two more set up for testing in Virginia. But on Feb. 23, the federal government will bid to lease offshore wind farms to utilities or those that develop offshore wind energy in an oceanic region called New York Bight, off the coasts of New York and New Jersey. The owners of these leases will then be able to set up wind farms in the area that produce up to 7 gigawatts of energy – enough to power about 2 million homes – which would require 600 to 700 turbine.
“Wind at sea in the Western Hemisphere has never seen anything like it,” Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Recode.
Offshore wind energy has historically been the responsibility of Europe, which has already built 25 gigawatts of offshore wind farms in the last few decades. The upcoming 7-gigawatt lease auction brings renewable energy production to the northeast in a meaningful way, and this is just the first of many: the Biden administration has said it intends to increase offshore wind production to 30 gigawatts by 2030. gigawatts that Americans use every year would still be a significant contribution to help the country switch from power to coal or natural gas.
Importantly, Biden’s plan is not just about increasing clean energy production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it also opens the door to an economy built around clean energy. Those 600 or 700 wind turbines will require people to make turbine components, ship them to sea and maintain them after installation. To make that happen, the White House and the Transportation Department aim to create nearly 80,000 offshore wind jobs by 2030 by investing in ports across the East Coast – some even inland such as Albany, New York, where turbine parts will be supplied. down the Hudson River to New York Light.
“The administration seems to understand that energy is at the heart of an integrated problem,” said Alexandra von Meyer, director of the power grid program at the California Institute of Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley. “It’s about the well-being of people and jobs.”
It’s also a smart political move: tying the fate of 80,000 jobs (nearly twice the number of coal jobs currently in the country) to offshore wind farms could isolate a plan from, say, Republican victory in 2024. However, Biden’s plan could fail depending of the forthcoming election results. While the lease will take place in February, the permitting process itself can take up to three years, after which the construction of the turbines will take another two years. That is more than enough time for the Minister of the Interior, who denies the climate with different political goals, to take office and throw the key into the plan.
The wind at sea is also not without its slanderers. In New England, local fishermen teamed up with an oil industry lobbying group in December to counter Vineyard Wind, a proposed 84-turbine wind farm near Cape Cod, Massachusetts; a lawsuit filed by the fishing industry is still pending in court. Turbines, fishermen say, could negatively affect marine life. They are also concerned that turbine towers could interfere with radar, while safe navigation zones near turbines could affect their ability to reach fishing grounds. The long-term impacts of wind turbines on marine life are still unclear, but a study in Europe’s North Sea has shown that turbine bases can act as artificial reefs for animals like mussels. Late last year, the Department of Energy awarded Duke University a $ 7.5 million grant to study the impact of wind at sea on marine life, the results of which should provide a more complete picture of how turbines can affect fisheries. Meanwhile, the Federal Ocean Energy Bureau is looking for solutions, which is why the New York Light sale notice includes provisions aimed at helping fishermen, such as transit lanes for 2.8-mile-wide fishing boats.
The challenges do not end there: even if wind turbines are built, and even if their potential impact on marine life is minimized, there must be room for the energy they produce. Transmission lines – the high-voltage cables you see strung on steel supports across the country – are usually built by regional transmission organizations, and Jacobs says there may not be enough to carry all the energy these new turbines produce.
This is exactly the problem that Germany faced in 2020, when the lack of transmission capacity in northern Germany meant that the region had to send part of its wind energy to neighboring countries. “A lot of wind came to the beach from the shore,” Jacobs said. “And then the German utility industry said, ‘Oh, we haven’t really prepared for this.’
The Biden administration seems to want to avoid a similar situation happening in the United States. Therefore, the two-party law on infrastructure includes the financing of transmission lines, and the administration announced that the Ministry of Energy is launching an initiative called Building a Better Network, which will act as a kind of central body for planning network improvements. But it is unclear whether this construction of the transmission will take place by the time the offshore wind farm starts up and starts operating in New York Bight – and the administration does not mention distribution lines or low voltage wires that bring electricity to homes and businesses. They are usually built in the U.S. by local utility companies, explained Kyri Baker, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, and are often replaced only when they become completely defective.
“You can have all the clean energy and all the high-voltage power lines you want,” Baker told Recode via email, “but without a resilient distribution network, we will continue to experience life-threatening power outages due to increasing extreme weather events.”
Nevertheless, von Meier remains optimistic. Pairing green energy with jobs and new transmission lines that will better cope with climate change, she says, is an exciting first step. The Biden administration has “realized that there really is some kind of this threefold need to tackle climate, resilience and equality.” And I think they realized it was an opportunity with pure energy for all three to have fun together. ”
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