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Coal, Gas Sink As New York Sails Into Offshore Wind Power Mega-Deal

While New York State signs the biggest offshore wind deal in US history, more signs of trouble loom on the horizon for coal and natural gas power plants.

It’s been another gloomy week on the fossil fuel front, but first things first: yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo committed his home state to the largest ever offshore wind power deal in US history. That’s a pretty short history, considering that the US offshore wind industry only sank its first “steel in the water” almost exactly four years ago this month. Nevertheless, the news doesn’t bode well for the nation’s dwindling coal power fleet. It also coincides with a new study exploring the potential for battery energy storage to replace conventional power plants for grid reliability.

offshore wind power New York State

New York State offshore wind map via NYSERDA.

A Historic Offshore Wind Power Deal

New York’s new headline-grabbing renewable energy deal involves almost 1,700 megawatts of clean power. That’s just for starters. When announcing the deal, Governor Cuomo also signed new legislation called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, “which adopts the most ambitious and comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation in the country.”

So, how does a largely landlocked state get to lead the nation in offshore wind energy?

New York State is almost entirely shut off from offshore activity, except for that long island sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean at the bottom, the aptly named Long Island.

State energy planners are taking full advantage of the geographic quirk. The deal includes two Equinor projects. One is Empire wind, located in the bight or “elbow” of ocean formed by the south-western end of Long Island and the New Jersey coast. The other is Sunrise Wind, which will cast its steel off the eastern end of Long Island.

A third project, Bay State Wind, pairs Ørsted A/S and Eversource Energy in a joint venture. That project is technically under the umbrella of Massachusetts but it’s in the same lease area as the Sunrise project, so New York State gets a share of the pie.

New York is also counting on a handy staging site on nearby Staten Island, which provides a convenient supply chain link to the continental US through New Jersey.

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that the US Department of Energy selected New York to lead a new $18.5 million wind energy R&D consortium, aimed at propelling the nation’s onshore and offshore wind sectors into global clean power leadership.

Offshore Wind Up, Coal Down

Meanwhile, reporter Taylor Kuykendall of S&P Global has the scoop on yet another coal power plant closure. Coal power plant retirements are a dime a dozen these days but this one is especially significant:

A campaign to rid the U.S. of coal-fired power generation secured a closure date for a 1,300-MW coal unit in Indiana, the largest to announce retirement since the Sierra Club began its crusade to shut down existing plants in 2010.

The power plant is owned by American Electric Power subsidiary Indiana Michigan Power Co. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the last wisps of greenhouse gases to rise from smokestacks, because the closure deadline is 2028. Still, the decision demonstrates how far, and how quickly, coal power is losing its prime perch in the US power generation landscape.

If you caught that thing about Sierra Club, that’s a reference to the organization’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. In addition to advocating for the closure of today’s coal power plants, the campaign can also take some credit for quashing plans for the coal power plants of tomorrow.

Back in 2002, clean air advocates caught wind of a national policy agenda that involved building almost 200 new coal power plants. That’s when the Sierra Club launched the original iteration of Beyond Coal. According to Sierra Club, not one of those new plants got a shovel in the ground.

More Bad News For Natural Gas

Despite a recent downturn in prices, the US natural gas industry is still enjoying boom times. However, the onshore and offshore wind industries are just one element cutting into natural gas’s territory.

Gas stakeholders could hold out hope that the emerging building electrification movement will necessitate the construction of new gas power plants, but that likelihood appears to be slipping away.

One of those other elements is battery energy storage. The company Sunrun, for example, just announced that it nailed down a “landmark contract” with California’s East Bay Community Energy board of directors to to install home solar and battery systems on low income housing. The work will enable the area’s decades-old Oakland Power Plant to stop burning jet fuel during peak demand hours.

On cautionary note, looked at the prospects for replacing natural gas power plants with renewables and energy storage, and found cause for alarm:

Regardless of the price comparison, to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change, scientists anticipate the U.S. and other countries will need to leave gas-fired electricity behind by the middle of the century. At the same time, utilities and energy companies plan to invest $112 billion in new gas plants by 2025, as well as $32 billion in infrastructure to transmit the gas…

In other words, the race is on to replace natural gas before those new construction plans get cemented in stone.

The US Department of Energy continues to cheerlead for natural gas, but last month the agency’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory put its finger on the scale in favor of energy storage. NREL studied the idea of using storage instead of “peaker” power plants and came up with this:

…We find that the addition of renewable generation can significantly increase storage’s potential by changing the shape of net demand patterns; for example, beyond about 10% penetration of solar photovoltaics, the national practical potential for 4-hour storage to provide peak capacity doubles. The impact of wind generation is less clear and likely requires more detailed study considering the exchange of wind power across multiple regions.

It looks like the onshore and offshore wind sectors have some more homework to do, but NREL is also looking into new technology that would enable long duration energy storage into the 10-hour range. CleanTechnica is reaching out to the lab for some insights on that score, so stay tuned.

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Image: Offshore wind energy map via NYSERDA.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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