US Offshore Wind Turbine Switcheroo Outsmarts The Smarty Pants

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Can’t a wind turbine catch a break around here? The US offshore wind industry took a beating from recalcitrant state governors during the Obama administration, and then the Trump administration threw in another monkey wrench when it delayed a decision on the Vineyard Wind permit in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, it looks like wind power will get the last laugh as the President* winds up his final days in office, so to speak.

usa offshore wind turbines
The Vineyard Wind offshore wind farm is just one beneficiary of the pre-repowering craze among US wind developers (photo courtesy of GE)

A Rocky Start For The US Offshore Wind Industry

As a quick reminder, way back in 2010 the Obama administration organized most of the Atlantic coast states into a consortium aimed at accelerating the US offshore wind industry and leading the world into the sparkling green future.

The Atlantic coast seemed like the perfect place to begin, with relatively shallow waters just ripe for planting rows of wind turbines and a chain of energy-sucking cities dotting the shoreline from Maine to Florida.

Unfortunately, the idea didn’t fly. When Obama left office in January 2017, a mere five wind turbines were in commercial operation in US waters, all located in a single wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island. There they sit to this day, all alone in the vast reaches of the Atlantic.

For those of you keeping score at home, yes there is another wind farm of sorts in US waters but it consists of just two “test” turbines off the Virginia coast. The turbines were put into operation just a few weeks ago and were still undergoing technical review as of this writing.

Seven Offshore Wind Turbines In Ten Years

Doing the math, that makes 7 whole offshore wind turbines in the 10-year stretch since 2010. Wow. At that rate, the US will catch up to global wind leaders in never ever in a million years.

Fortunately, two elements are at work that should enable the US offshore wind industry to pick up the pace in short order.

First, the US did streamline its offshore wind area lease and permit process during the Obama administration, putting everything under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

That didn’t help much when anti-wind governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie were in office, but many of those seats have changed hands in recent years. Atlantic coast governors from Maine on down (well, not all the way down) are now eager to grab a piece of the offshore pie.

Trump took office in 2017 with a known penchant for hating on wind turbines and a pledge to preserve fossil energy interests, but apparently somebody on the Trump team forgot to tell the folks over at BOEM to put the wind lease program on the back burner. For that matter, somebody also forgot to tell the Department of Energy to cool it.

As a result, intentionally or not (spoiler alert: probably not), Trump unleashed a fire hose of new offshore wind leases on his watch.

An August 2019 BOEM update listed 15 Atlantic coast wind farm projects in the pipeline, with plans under way for additional areas in New York, South Carolina, California, and Hawaii, along with approvals for two wind research sites.

Just last month, BOEM also announced a new collaboration aimed at developing wind farms off for Louisiana, which would make it a first among the five coastal states ringing the Gulf of Mexico.

Technology Never Sleeps

That brings us to the second element, which is technology.

Louisiana is interesting from a legacy technology perspective because it illustrates how the US already has a head start on offshore wind development, through its fossil energy sector.

When Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced the new BOEM collaboration, he made a point of mentioning that at least four Louisiana firms with experience in offshore activity — Aries Marine Corp., Falcon Global LLC, Keystone Engineering, and Gulf Island Fabrication — were involved in the construction and design of Rhode Island’s wind farm.

The California angle is interesting through a next-generation technology lens, because the waters of the Pacific coast are too deep for conventional fixed-platform wind turbines. Instead, they are banking on new floating wind turbine technology. Keep an eye on Maine for activity in  floating wind technology.

South Carolina also presents an interesting example of next-generation technology continuing to work its magic, even if energy policy does not. State policy makers in South Carolina have resisted offshore wind development for years, and just a couple of months ago Trump tightened the screws when he imposed an offshore energy moratorium on South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Nevertheless, the seeds of change were sown in 2013, when the federal Recovery Act helped establish a wind turbine test facility at Clemson University.

The Big Offshore Wind Turbine Switcheroo

In recent years, the Clemson facility has tested some of the biggest wind turbines in the world, and that brings us right back around to the Vineyard Wind project.

When BOEM delayed the permitting process for Vineyard Wind last year, it cited the need to consider the combined impact of wind farm development on the Atlantic coast. That cast a shadow of doubt over practically every other offshore wind farm in the pipeline, too. Vineyard Wind would be the very first large-scale project of its kind in the US, weighing in at 800 megawatts compared to just 30 for Rhode Island’s Block Island wind farm.

The shadow of doubt lingers on during Trump’s ever-shortening time in office. BOEM was expected to render a final decision on Vinyard Wind on January 15, just five days before President-Elect Joe Biden takes the helm. Except, now maybe  it’s not.

Last week, Reuters reported that Vinyard Wind pushed the pause button on its own permit, temporarily withdrawing it for a period of several weeks.

The reason given was to incorporate new, more powerful wind turbines into the design of the wind farm.

Not coincidentally, that would also push the permit decision into the Biden administration, where it would presumably meet with a cheery hello.

As of this writing, BOEM appears to be saying that Vinyard Wind cannot withdraw from the process unless BOEM gives it permission to withdraw, so we’ll see how that spins out.

You’ve Heard Of Re-Powering, Now Here Comes Pre-Re-Powering

Meanwhile, let’s take a closer look at those powerful new turbines. If you guessed they are GE’s new Haliade-X wind turbines, run right out and buy yourself a cigar fair trade organic herbal smoke.

The new turbines demonstrate something we’ll call pre-re-powering, as something that is similar to but different from repowering.

Repowering involves replacing old wind turbines on an existing wind farm with more powerful turbines. Now the technology is improving so fast that wind farm developers are pre-re-powering, by switching to more powerful turbines before they even start construction.

CleanTechnica has spilled quite a bit of ink on the 12-megawatt Haliade-X wind turbine, which has been billed as the most powerful wind turbine in the world. To seal its claim on the title, a couple of months ago GE tweaked the turbine and brought its rating up to 13 megawatts.

With the new turbines in hand, Vineyard Wind can pare the size of its wind farm to 62 turbines, where the original plan called for 84. Fewer turbines means lower construction costs, and presumably less impact on aquatic life and other marine activity.

If all goes according to plan, BOEM’s delaying action last year will have a happy ending after all, at least for offshore wind fans.

Vineyard is not the only project to take advantage of the latest turbine technology. In Maryland, a project called Skipjack Wind Farm was held up during the permitting process, enabling the developer to switch gears and lay plans for installing taller turbine towers with Haliade X turbines to boot. The 12-megawatt version was mentioned when that idea popped up last summer, but it’s possible they’ll switch again and install the 13-megawatt turbines instead.

That two-turbine test project in Virginia could signal a makeover for yet another large scale wind farm. The project comes under the mantle of Dominion Energy, which is using it as the basis for 2,600 megawatts worth of offshore wind projects. Construction is not slated to begin until 2024, which could provide Dominion with an opportunity to nail down new, improved wind turbines.

As for President Trump, he certainly did outsmart a lot of people with all that talk about saving coal jobs and what-not, but as the saying goes you can’t fool all of the scientists, researchers, engineers, and investors all of the time.

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*Developing story.

Photo: Haliade X wind turbine courtesy of GE.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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