The purpose of renewable energy is clear; it is to save the earth from the inhospitable effects of climate change. However, as renewables such as offshore wind continues to gather momentum, there is mounting public resistance to this rising electricity sector.
Offshore wind turbines have become cost competitive in the past decade, causing them to be utilized extensively in Europe. Now, the USA is eying up locations to deploy this cutting-edge technology.
There over 2000 gigawatts of potential wind energy resources on US shores. However, as of today, offshore wind farms generate a mere 42 megawatts, less than 0.002% of the theoretical capacity.
In October, the Biden administration announced plans to capitalize on the underutilized electrical potential by dotting the coast of the US with numerous offshore wind turbines, from the coast of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. Biden hopes to generate 30 GW by 2035, which he says will be enough to power over 10 million homes.
Despite this potential, the rollout of these offshore wind farms is raising concerns among coastal communities, fishermen, and ecologists.
According to the White House statement, there are many advantages to placing windfarms offshore. Due to a lack of obstructions, wind speeds tend to be higher in bodies of water. The American Geosciences Institute claims that relatively small fluctuations in wind speed can lead to massive gains in electricity production. “A turbine in a 15-mph wind can generate twice as much energy as a turbine in 12-mph wind.”. Due to the large available area in the open ocean, offshore wind turbines can be twice as large as onshore ones, providing even greater electricity generation. Moreover, the Department of Energy claims that 80% of the country’s energy demand comes from Great Lake and coastal states, giving these wind farms convenient proximity to high demand locations.
However, these projects will have environmental impacts. The noise produced from the deafening pile drilling during the construction of these farms is by itself disruptive to marine mammals. According to a paper by marine ecologist Steven Degraer of Ghent University and several others, this noise interferes with porpoises and dolphins who use echolocation to hunt for food, communicate, and map their surroundings. After these windfarms are installed, seabirds can be displaced from their gathering grounds and migration routes by the large, spinning blades of the turbines. Creatures who live on the seabed such as lobsters and crabs will also suffer habitat loss as transmission lines and the concrete foundations of wind turbines are sunk into the ocean floor, pushing them out.
Marine life is not the only thing being displaced by the wind farms. There is considerable backlash from the US fishing industry over the construction of these farms. In an open letter to the government by the Responsible Offshore Development Association (RODA), a coalition of fishing industries, they demanded concessions from the wind industry and rebuked the government’s actions to roll out offshore wind. RODA argues that offshore wind energy is not the only solution to implement renewables, citing environmental and economic consequences. RODA also disagrees with Biden’s goal to “take aggressive action to tackle climate change.”.
“We’re aggressively prioritizing one specific option to address climate change, despite it carrying enormous environmental and economic unknowns,” RODA says, “Is ‘aggressive’ the best approach to thousands of square miles of this?”
The main concern from the fishing industry is wind turbines are disruptive to harvesting fish. Fishermen have claimed that wind turbines act as a dangerous barrier when fishermen must carefully navigate around when harvesting clams and fish in high-value shallow waters. If fishing equipment gets snagged on the turbines, a vessel may capsize, threatening the lives of everyone on board.
The effects of the turbines on the ecosystem also affect fishermen. As the ocean is displaced by large concrete foundations, lobsters may lose their habitat, fish stocks may dwindle, and the distribution of species will shift, further decreasing the productivity of the fishing industry.
Some fishermen are taking these concerns directly to the wind farms. Last March off the coast of Maine, over 80 fishing crews protested the trial of a single floating wind turbine.
“It’s a threat to our livelihood; It’s gonna mess with the ocean and our way of life,” a fisherman declared. “This one…I truly believe, is the foot in the door to get more than one out there.”
On the other hand, there are also numerous benefits from these offshore wind farms. According to an article by Steven Degraer, the sturdy foundations of the turbines provide an anchor for clams and seaweed, which in turn attract fish, attracting predatory mammals, creating an artificial reef. These artificial reefs increase biodiversity, which in the long-term increases fish stocks.
Although offshore wind farms may cause some decline in the fishing industry, the installation of these farms alone will provide job opportunities. National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy elaborates that, “President Biden believes we have an enormous opportunity in front of us to not only address the threats of climate change but use it as a chance to create millions of good-paying, union jobs… Nowhere is the scale of that opportunity clearer than for offshore wind.”.
Innovative solutions are also mitigating the impact of these wind farms. Floating wind turbines anchored to the seabed with wires rather than drilled with concrete foundations can reduce the environmental impact of the turbines. Furthermore, this technology eliminates disruption to coastal communities, as they can be installed in deeper waters further offshore, providing countless more opportunities for the exploitation of wind resources.
As the USA continues the transition to renewable energy, the US government is treading carefully to gain the trust of these coastal fishing communities and maintain public support for these projects. The White House statements says that all coastal waters are being carefully assessed for environmental or economic impacts on the local communities before they are leased to the wind industry. The White House has provided over $1 million in research grants to investigate the long-term environmental impacts of offshore windfarms, and an $8 million award each to 15 offshore wind projects that made major contributions to offshore wind technology.
Many are frustrated that fisheries are still trying to prohibit the advance of the offshore wind industry. Alison W. Bates, professor of environmental studies at Colby College, argues that “the oceans are commons—they don’t belong to the fishermen; we as a society have an equal share in what happens in ocean space.”
With the amount of research that the fisheries demand, Bates believes that we need to just get the ball rolling and monitor the results instead. “We’re never gonna learn what we need to learn if we don’t get started at least putting some offshore wind in the water.”
In a speech delivered by Inger Andersen, the director of the UN Environment Programme, she mentions that countries must act quickly to reduce emissions to meet the requirements of the Paris agreement. “We can’t undo the mistakes of the past,” says Andersen, “But this generation of political and business leaders, this generation of conscious citizens can make things right… Climate change is here, now. But we are also here, now. And if we don’t act, who will?”
While offshore wind provides a sizable contribution to renewable energy, it may still be only one of the first steps to a clean environmental future. Offshore wind promises to generate 30 GW of capacity but is still far from replacing the 701 GW currently generated by fossil fuels.
Cover Image: David Dixon / Wikimedia