Harnessing the Offshore Wind Energy Opportunity

It's about to happen on a large scale along our coasts, and governments need to be working to make the most of it.
March 15, 2018
Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm
An offshore wind farm off the coast of England. (Flickr/NHD INFO)
By Jon Mitchell  |  Contributor
Mayor of New Bedford, Mass.

On a clear night over the coast of northern Europe, airline passengers are treated to a remarkable sight in the waters below. Red navigation lights shine out into the darkness from more than 3,700 wind turbines in vast arrays out at sea. After nearly three decades of technological development and investment, Europe today boasts more than 80 industrial-scale offshore wind farms.

Passengers on flights over the East Coast of the United States will enjoy a similar view, and sooner than most realize. That's because the offshore wind industry is quietly setting down domestic roots and readying itself to supply cost-competitive, clean, renewable electricity to the U.S. market.

Massachusetts set an example for the rest of the nation when it passed major renewable energy legislation in 2016. Among other provisions, the law requires utilities to procure a combined 1,600 megawatts of power from offshore wind by 2027. The first of those procurements are expected to be approved in April.

Massachusetts is far from alone. States along the East Coast are advancing similar initiatives to secure power from offshore wind projects. New Jersey and New York just set significant procurement goals, with several other states following suit. And the federal government has continued to designate and lease the areas of ocean necessary to construct these projects.

At the local level, the arrival of this new, technologically intensive industry in America has the potential to be an economic game-changer.

In Europe, the industry now accounts for 84,000 jobs, and there is every reason to think that jobs figure, in time, will repeat itself here in the United States. That's why in New Bedford, Mass., we have devoted considerable time and energy to assess and understand what the offshore wind opportunity looks like at the ground level from a municipal perspective.

New Bedford has much to offer the industry. It certainly helps that we have the closest industrial port to the nation's largest offshore wind energy reserves. In fact, according to the Department of Energy, about 25 percent of all those reserves lay in an area just off our coast.

But the core competitive advantages valued by the industry extend far beyond simple geography. As the nation's top-grossing commercial fishing port, there's already a strong foundation in New Bedford of maritime industries and ocean-science research institutions to support new growth.

The key, of course, will be ensuring that the emerging offshore wind sector develops in a way that doesn't impinge on existing economic assets, such as our fishing fleet, but does take advantage of the industrial and research assets that already exist.

Infrastructure is an equally important factor. It surprises many to learn that our port is unique in all of North America in that it is already home to the nation's first purpose-built marine terminal for offshore wind. The specialized terminal is designed to support the enormous weights of turbine components that typical port facilities cannot accommodate. New Bedford will make good use of the terminal to stage the nation's very first industrial-scale wind project to be built off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, just 25 miles away.

A concerted, community-wide effort is also well underway so that local students, our labor force and our businesses are prepared to meet the needs of the industry. Equally important is the long-term strategic land-use planning we are doing to maximize our role in the generation of offshore wind projects that will follow. In short, New Bedford is doing everything it can to position itself as an ideal location for the industry to build its future.

And we are using history as our guide. In the 19th century, New Bedford emerged as the epicenter of the first truly global energy industry: whaling, which produced the oil that illuminated homes and businesses until late in the century. So it makes perfect sense that today we should be working to reaffirm New Bedford's historical title, "the city that lit the world," by pursuing the opportunity presented by offshore wind.

We think that smart, forward-thinking public- and private-sector leaders all along our coasts ought to be exploring how they might contribute to the emergence of this new industry. The more thinking, planning and interaction with the industry now, the sooner we all will reap the benefits of a clean, renewable energy source and jobs generator.

A generation from now, passengers on U.S. airline flights may gaze down on lights flashing out silently from turbines in the ocean darkness below and wonder what all the excitement was about. But right now there's good reason to be excited.