Buried somewhere deep beneath the avalanche of Election Day results is news that the US has finally disentangled itself from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, as promised by President* Trump all the way back in June of 2017. That may leave fossil fuel fans heaving a sigh of relief, but not for long. The mighty US offshore wind industry has just begun to flex its muscles, and that’s just a taste of the massive shift in store for the domestic energy industry, regardless of who wins the Electoral College.
Buh-Bye, Paris — Hello, Sailor
For those of you new to the Paris Agreement topic, former President Barack Obama signed the US onto the international Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015. The Agreement called for taking action on global decarbonization, and leading US and global corporations supported the effort with huge clean power buys in the fall of 2015.
It takes time to unravel an international agreement, and it took all the way up to November 4 of 2020 for the US to officially pack its bags and leave the Paris Agreement.
The list of clean power-curious companies swelled in 2020 as the General Election cycle gained steam. Hundreds joined a new green recovery lobbying effort last spring, and earlier this month the influential Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance issued a new set of principles to accelerate change in the wholesale market.
For that matter, the US Department of Energy has continued to plow away at its renewable energy mission all throughout Trump’s tenure. The Energy Department’s clean tech initiatives over the past three years or so will have a profound impact on decarbonization in the future. That includes several ambitious plans cemented earlier this year, including next-generation energy storage, international collaborations on green hydrogen and pumped storage hydropower, and universal access to affordable solar power, to name a few.
A Mighty Offshore Wind Is Blowing
That green hydrogen angle is catching the eye of the wind power industry, the idea being that excess turbine capacity can be deployed in an electricity-driven system (aka electrolysis) to “split” renewable hydrogen from water. The hydrogen basically acts as an energy storage medium for fuel, or it can be used as a sustainable feedstock in various industries including food processing, refining, and fertilizer production.
The wind power angle comes into play because hydrogen production could set wind turbines to work on generating electricity for green hydrogen at night, when demand is low.
As for the offshore angle, some interesting elements are at work there, especially if the hydrogen production takes place offshore as well.
Here in the US, plans for offshore wind farms are beginning to pepper the Atlantic coast, where coastal population, agricultural, and industrial centers would provide ripe markets for green hydrogen as well as clean electricity, without bumping into the sorts of land use issues that bedevil onshore wind farms.
More Offshore Wind Activity On The Horizon
The option of shipping hydrogen by tanker and pipeline may also factor into offshore wind investors equations when the topic of green hydrogen pops up, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Catching up to the global offshore wind industry is the name of the game now.
The US offshore wind industry fell behind during the Obama administration, when Republican coastal governors (looking at you, New Jersey) and state legislators threw up one roadblock after another, even though the relatively shallow waters of the Atlantic coast are tailor-made for wind development.
Nevertheless, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management continued to auction offshore leases during Obama’s term in office. The offshore lease activity also continued all through the Trump years, during which several states saw a changing of the political guard.
The prospect of economic benefits appears to have finally convinced elected officials from both parties to hop on the offshore bandwagon. In the latest development, three coastal governors — Larry Hogan (R-Maryland), Ralph Northam (D-Virginia), and Roy Cooper (D-North Carolina) — have joined together in a new offshore wind initiative called SMART-POWER, for the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Regional Transformative Partnership for Offshore Wind Energy Resources.
A memorandum of understanding signed on October 29 commits the three states to recognizing that, “offshore wind is a renewable energy resource that can help transition to a clean energy economy and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and other harmful air pollutants,” and that wind is “a fast-growing global industry with the potential for economic development and job creation in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast United States.”
The three governors are eyeballing a technical capacity of 245 gigawatts between them, which puts them in a nice position to grab a slice of the 86-gigawatt Atlantic Coast offshore wind pie that the Energy Department anticipates by 2050.
Also helping matters along are the academic research institutions and other R&D resources scattered generously among the three states. The partners figure that coordination and resource-sharing will stimulate supply chain development, provide the industry with a streamlined regulatory platform, and give the whole three-state region a competitive edge.
As for green jobs, the MOU cites 86,000 of them, along with $57 billion in investments and the potential for $25 billion in economic output by 2030.
Clean Power Wins 2020 Election
Regardless of where the final vote count falls after Election Day, the US is barreling down the clean power road, and the new SMART-POWER initiative is not the only item of interest to pop up in the waning days of the election cycle.
The Energy Department, for example, plunged into that green hydrogen collaboration just a few weeks ago on October 6, with a commitment to lend its National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other resources to analyze and validate emerging technology with the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy.
Last week, the Energy Department joined forces with other global stakeholders in something called G-PST, which aims to speed up renewable energy integration in electricity systems around the world.
The Energy Department was still hammering away at the global green economy all the way up to November 3 — yes, right on Election Day — when it chaired a new multinational pumped storage hydropower consortium under the auspices of the International Hydropower Association.
That’s on top of the new US Air Force “Reimagining Energy” open call for innovators to decarbonize the entire Department of Defense, which launched in October with the aim of achieving carbon neutral status, eventually.
That thing about carbon negative is not as far fetched as it may seem. The DOD is not particularly keen on offshore wind but it does oversee vast land resources for natural carbon sequestration, and it has a running start on all sorts of clean tech, including energy efficiency as well as renewable energy, microgrids, and foundational research.
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Image: US Department of Energy Atlantic coast offshore wind project locations.