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United States

Opinion: Hurdles ahead, but US will get there on offshore wind

With a president prepared to put resources and talent into offshore wind, the US is ready to get serious about creating its own industry

Jack-up vessels for wind farm installation are not going to suddenly start appearing out of US shipbuilding yards, writes Matt Palmer (pic credit: Jan De Nul)
Jack-up vessels for wind farm installation are not going to suddenly start appearing out of US shipbuilding yards, writes Matt Palmer (pic credit: Jan De Nul)

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At last, the political will is here. In my 20 years in the offshore wind business, it has never been like this before – not anywhere close. The target set by Joe Biden's administration for the US to leap from its paltry 42MW to 30GW of offshore wind power by 2030 is truly seismic.

Achieving this goal with manufacturing on US soil will create huge employment opportunities — and with energy secretary Jennifer Granholm’s announcement that $40 billion will be available in Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantees for renewable energy projects, the reduction of risk throws the doors wide open for new projects.

I wish it was that simple, for as the president said at his recently convened online summit on climate change to 40 world leaders: “This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis”.

For US offshore wind power, I believe that in the next three to eight years, we will get there, despite several current obstacles. The Jones Act – enacted just over a century ago – makes the transport of cargo between US ports totally off‐​limits to non-US ships. It is here to stay. Jack-up vessels for wind farm installation, which cost around $400-$500 million or more, are not going to suddenly start appearing out of US shipbuilding yards. But we have what will hopefully be the first of many currently under construction in Texas. In the meantime, the use of US-registered feeder barges does successfully adhere to Jones Act requirements.

Talk of many thousands of American jobs being created by a concerted growth in offshore wind is perfectly realistic. For a graduate to learn specialised skills it is going to take two to three years, while for an already experienced offshore design engineer, it will be as little as six to nine months before they can work on areas such as platforms and supports. 

The very complicated parts of primary seal design will remain in the hands of US-based Europeans for the foreseeable future, but the vast majority of jobs will be on land, with skills such as welding easily transferable from traditional industries into wind turbine and foundation manufacture. Encouragingly, ground has just been broken on a new $250 million monopile manufacturing facility in New Jersey. 

Offshore wind enjoys support on both sides of the political aisle because of its contributions to both addressing climate change and — through the creation of jobs — economic growth. Unfortunately, in the current, hyper-polarised political climate, it can be almost impossible to break out of the partisan framework. The Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives, and have wasted no time in putting climate change firmly on the agenda. But, with the narrowest of margins in the Senate, creating new climate legislation isn’t going to be all plain sailing. 

With former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy now in the role of White House national climate adviser, however, we finally have somebody who not only has the ear of an enthusiastic and environmentally aware president, but somebody who can bring together conflicting parties to discuss issues such as the concerns about fishing being impacted off the east coast and the currently naval-dominated west coast. Tall orders, but I see positive change ahead.

Following what has predominantly been European and some Asian finance, the route to creating US jobs with US capital is suddenly beginning to happen, with interest from this side of the pond as investors recognise that with such solid federal commitment, it is time to talk business. It will be interesting to see whether in addition to the capital markets, the likes of Chevron and ExxonMobil follow Shell and BP in wanting a piece of the action.

Crucially, the younger generation are going to play a big part in the future success of America’s offshore wind industry. Incentivised by the Biden administration’s keenness to inject money into research and development, there is no shortage of interest from those who know it is they who are going to face the consequences of climate change head-on. Driven by the universities, young academics are hungry to be part of the solution. They are not aiming to work in what they see as dirty industries.

Yes, there are always challenges, but finally, with the skills and enthusiasm of the new generation and the new administration, we now have the impetus to position the US as a serious player in offshore wind.

Matt Palmer is president and CEO of Wood Thilsted USA, an engineering consultancy specialising in offshore wind farms

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