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Is offshore wind the answer to a greener future in the U.S.?


The U.S. energy sector accounts for about a quarter of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. That's because more than half of U.S. electricity comes from fossil fuels. To reduce the nation's reliance on coal and natural gas, President Biden is pushing for renewable energy sources, including offshore wind. For the second part of our series on America's energy transition, I spoke with engineer Amy Robertson of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. I started by asking her if Biden's goal to power 10 million homes with offshore wind by 2030 is realistic when there are only two offshore wind farms operating in the U.S. right now.

AMY ROBERTSON: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, yes, we have very little now, and that's a big incline in the amount of energy that we need to be producing. And right now, we actually have 40 gigawatts of offshore wind projects in the regulatory pipeline. That means they're moving towards being built. You can see that while it's really a short term, we're really taking the strides to meet that demand now.

FADEL: So when it comes to offshore wind compared to other renewable sources, onshore wind, solar, why should the U.S. invest in this technology over other, cheaper renewables?

ROBERSTON: The truth is that in order to solve this climate crisis, in order to decarbonize our energy infrastructure, we're going to need not just one or two renewable energy sources. We're going to need a whole portfolio. By having a whole group of different sources, we're going to create a more reliable-type system. And most importantly, if you try to just meet those energy goals with land-based wind and land-based solar, there's simply not enough land available to build the level of systems that we need to meet that demand. And this is especially true in coastal regions.

FADEL: And then this might be kind of a more simple question, but the big difference between having an offshore wind farm and an onshore wind farm - I know you spoke about the limitations of actual land, but just generally, what is the difference there?

ROBERSTON: One of the significant differences and the reason that we'll be able to bring down offshore wind costs compared to kind of the rate we can bring down land is we're able to actually build much bigger offshore wind turbines than we can on land because the whole ability to transport large components through our highways and trains, it's just not feasible on land, but offshore, we have much more freedom. We don't have those restrictions. So we can actually build more massive wind turbines, which growing the size of the wind turbine can actually really help with the economy of that wind turbine.

FADEL: In the sense of cost.

ROBERSTON: Yeah, exactly. So just growing the size of that wind turbine is going to create a lot more power, and it's going to bring down the cost of that energy you get out.

FADEL: The U.S. seems late to the game. Why has it taken so long?

ROBERSTON: Yeah, I guess there's really several reasons it's been taking a while. I think first, historically, offshore wind has been rather costly compared to other renewable energy sources, but we have been seeing the costs coming down. Since about 2015, the price of offshore wind has really been reduced. And so we're starting to see a lot of interest in the U.S., especially at the state level, where they can see that offshore wind can really bring good economic value to their local regions.

FADEL: And at this point, do we know much about possible long-term impacts? I know there is some concern about what offshore wind farms might do to marine life.

ROBERSTON: Yeah, no, I mean, that's always a critical question. I mean, we've - for land-based wind as well, we are always trying to study to make sure that we're addressing how that's interacting with wildlife. We're doing the same offshore. We're continuing to do studies not just about how to build systems that impact the environment less, but we're also trying to look at ways to deter that impact. So we're actively working with fisheries and other environmental agencies to make sure that we can figure out the best way to deploy these systems with the least impact.

FADEL: Now, when President Biden talks about solving the climate crisis and green energy, he talks about that hand in hand with the need for jobs here in the United States. With offshore wind being a fairly new industry in the U.S., is that a reality yet for Americans? Does this industry come with jobs in the U.S.?

ROBERSTON: Oh, for sure, yeah. I mean, the first wind farms that are going to be built on the East Coast here, we are going to have to rely on some of the mature European supply chains. But the construction planning, maintenance and development activities that are going to go into those projects are already - have those capabilities domestically. And as we bring more offshore wind into the U.S., we're going to just have to grow that domestic supply chain to meet that demand.

FADEL: Amy Robertson, a modeling expert for offshore wind at National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Thank you so much, Amy.

ROBERSTON: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.