Now is the time for offshore wind

Now is the time for offshore wind
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This country is on the cusp of another significant transformation of its electricity sector — one that will continue a trend of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing system reliability, and lowering wholesale electricity costs in regions where demand is the highest. Offshore wind is the basis of this transformation and is poised to deliver these benefits.

Since leaving government, we both have worked (in a limited capacity) with clients interested in developing offshore wind projects or infrastructure that would support the industry — an industry that will also create significant opportunities in the engineering, manufacturing, and construction sectors. At a recent hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives, experts testified that based on current commitments by seven states to procure almost 20,000 megawatts (MW) of wind power by 2030, there will be $70 billion of capital expenditures necessary to support this effort.

In addition, the ongoing operation and maintenance support needed to sustain wind generation facilities overall will grow to at least $21 billion per year in the next 5 years. More long-term, the Department of Energy (DOE) has projected the U.S. could develop 86,000 MW by 2050, almost doubling the amount of renewable energy provided today by wind and solar projects.

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With the cost of wind and solar electricity generation declining 69 percent and 88 percent respectively since 2009, and exciting new storage technologies on the horizon, there is no reason to doubt the feasibility of renewables becoming a dominant portion of the U.S. electricity supply.

The rise of offshore wind over the last decade has been remarkable. During our tenure leading the Department of the Interior as Secretary and Deputy Secretary, our team stood up the offshore wind program by creating the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, completing the regulations necessary to permit offshore wind projects, and issuing the first leases giving wind companies a right to develop projects and bring offshore power to market.

Initially, the willingness to invest was modest, with initial leases in 2013 ranging from $150,000 to $3.1 million.

Gradually, with active policies in place to support offshore wind at both the state and federal levels, lease sale values have significantly increased, including three leases offshore Massachusetts in December 2018 which yielded over $400 million. To date, there are 15 active federal leases which have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Federal treasury.

More revenue will be forthcoming once the projects are completed and operating. Offshore wind developers, coupled with private financing, have clearly demonstrated their willingness to invest significant resources and work in partnership with government at all levels to build this industry.

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But now is a critical time. The significant investments to date are at substantial risk if projects now ready for construction are unable to obtain the necessary permits to put steel in the water in the very near future. Time is of the essence to ensure the financial commitments critical to deliver clean energy at affordable rates are secure.

It is simply imperative — to the goals of addressing climate change and creating a sustainable electricity sector — that all levels of government aggressively work together to resolve outstanding issues and move viable projects forward as soon as possible.

Even that, however, is not enough. Going forward, with revenue already flowing to the Federal treasury and greater benefits to come, Congress should move swiftly to enact policies that will leverage the significant private sector actions and state policies that have brought the offshore wind program to the brink of large-scale success.

Five simple areas of policy-making can ensure the Federal government is a partner to this ongoing transition to sustainable energy supplies. These include:

  • Extending the investment tax credit for wind;
  • Permanently authorizing and overseeing implementation of the infrastructure permitting improvements for large projects first established in the 2015 Transportation Bill that expires in 2020;
  • Directing and prioritizing the Department of Defense’s work needed to reduce and resolve potential conflicts with other necessary uses of our oceans;
  • Matching industry’s investment in the studies and ongoing research needed to ensure offshore wind is compatible with healthy and productive commercial fisheries; and
  • Directing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Regional Transmission Organizations, and Independent System Operators to work closely with state public utility regulators to facilitate the transmission investments needed to efficiently integrate offshore wind into the electric grid.

With the right policies, offshore wind is poised to take off and benefit our country for decades to come. But success will not just happen because it should. Aggressive actions are still needed to facilitate the investments necessary to create the 86,000 MW of offshore power projected by DOE.

If successful, the U.S. will become the world leader and dominant player in this industry. The result will be good for the economy, good for the environment, and demonstrate that public demand for clean energy can be met with strong bipartisan support. This next level of transforming our energy system will benefit all Americans.

Ken Salazar served as Secretary of the Interior from 2009 to 2013 and previously served as U.S. Senator from Colorado. Mike Connor served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior from 2014 to 2017; he previously served as counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Both are partners at the law firm WilmerHale.