With more than 90,000 miles of coastline, the country has plenty of places to plunk down turbines. But legal, environmental and economic obstacles and even vanity have stood in the way.
President Biden wants to catch up fast — in fact, his targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions depend on that happening. Yet problems abound, including a shortage of boats big enough to haul the huge equipment to sea, fishermen worried about their livelihoods and wealthy people who fear that the turbines will mar the pristine views from their waterfront mansions. There’s even a century-old, politically fraught federal law, known as the Jones Act, that blocks wind farm developers from using American ports to launch foreign construction vessels.
Offshore turbines are useful because the wind tends to blow stronger and more steadily at sea than onshore. The turbines can be placed far enough out that they aren’t visible from land but still close enough to cities and suburbs that they do not require hundreds of miles of expensive transmission lines.
The Biden administration wants up to 2,000 turbines in the water in the next eight and a half years. Officials recently approved a project near Martha’s Vineyard that languished during the Trump administration and in May announced support for large wind farms off California’s coast. The $2 trillion infrastructure plan that Mr. Biden proposed in March would also increase incentives for renewable energy.
The cost of offshore wind turbines has fallen about 80 percent over the last two decades, to as low as $50 a megawatt-hour. While more expensive per unit of energy than solar and wind farms on land, offshore turbines often make economic sense because of lower transmission costs.
“Solar in the East is a little bit more challenging than in the desert West,” said Robert M. Blue, the chairman and chief executive of Dominion Energy, a big utility company that is working on a wind farm with nearly 200 turbines off the coast of Virginia. “We’ve set a net-zero goal for our company by 2050. This project is essential to hitting those goals.”
The slow pace of offshore wind development highlights the trade-offs between urgently addressing climate change and Mr. Biden’s other goals of creating well-paying jobs and protecting local habitats. The United States could push through more projects if it was willing to repeal the Jones Act’s protections for domestic shipbuilding, for example, but that would undercut the president’s employment promises.
These difficult questions can’t simply be solved by federal spending. As a result, it could be difficult or impossible for Mr. Biden to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035 and reach net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050, as he would like.
“I think the clear fact that other places got a jump on us is important,” said Amanda Lefton, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency that leases federal waters to wind developers. “We are not going to be able to build offshore wind if we don’t have the right investments.”
Europe’s head start means it has established a thriving complex of turbine manufacturing, construction ships and an experienced work force. That’s why the United States could have to rely on European components, suppliers and ships for years.
Installing giant offshore wind turbines — the largest one, made by General Electric, is 853 feet high — is difficult work. Ships with cranes that can lift more than a thousand tons haul large components out to sea. At their destinations, legs are lowered into the water to raise the ships and make them stationary while they work. Only a few ships can handle the biggest components, and that’s a big problem for the United States.
A 1,600-mile round trip to Canada.
Lloyd Eley, a project manager, helped build nuclear submarines early in his career and has spent the last eight years at Dominion Energy. None of that quite prepared him for overseeing the construction of two wind turbines off the Virginia coast.
Mr. Eley’s biggest problem was the Jones Act, which requires ships that travel from a U.S. port to anywhere within the country, including its waters, to be made and registered in the United States and owned and staffed by Americans.
The largest U.S.-built ships designed for doing offshore construction work are about 185 feet long and can lift about 500 tons, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in December. That is far too small for the giant components that Mr. Eley’s team was working with.
So Dominion hired three European ships and operated them out of the Port of Halifax in Nova Scotia. One of them, the Vole au Vent from Luxembourg, is 459 feet (140 meters) long and can lift 1,654 tons.
Mr. Eley’s crew waited weeks at a time for the European ships to travel more than 800 miles each way to port. The installations took a year. In Europe, it would have been completed in a few weeks. “It was definitely a challenge,” he said.
The U.S. shipping industry has not invested in the vessels needed to carry large wind equipment because there have been so few projects here. The first five offshore turbines were installed in 2016 near Block Island, R.I. Dominion’s two turbines were installed last year.
Had the Jones Act not existed — it was enacted after World War I to ensure that the country had ships and crews to mobilize during war and emergencies — Dominion could have run European vessels out of Virginia’s ports. The law is sacrosanct in Congress, and labor unions and other supporters argue that repealing it would eliminate thousands of jobs at shipyards and on boats, leaving the United States reliant on foreign companies.
Demand for large ships could grow significantly over the next decade because the United States, Europe and China have ambitious offshore wind goals. Just eight ships in the world can transport the largest turbine parts, according to Dominion.
Dominion is spending $500 million on a ship, being built in Brownsville, Texas, that can haul large wind equipment. Named after a sea monster from Greek myth, Charybdis, the ship will be 472 feet (144 meters) long and able to lift 2,200 tons. It will be ready at the end of 2023. The company said the ship, which it will also rent to other developers, would let it affordably install roughly 200 more turbines by 2026. Dominion spent $300 million on its first two but hopes the others will cost $40 million each.
Fishermen fear for their livelihoods.
For the last 24 years, Tommy Eskridge, a resident of Tangier Island, has made a living catching conchs and crabs off the Virginia coast.
One area he works is where Dominion plans to place its turbines. Federal regulators have adjusted spacing between turbines to one nautical mile to create wider lanes for fishing and other boats, but Mr. Eskridge, 54, worries that the turbines could hurt his catch.
The area has yielded up to 7,000 pounds of conchs a day, though Mr. Eskridge said a typical day produced about half that amount. A pound can fetch $2 to $3, he said.
Mr. Eskridge said the company and regulators had not done enough to show that installing turbines would not hurt his catch. “We just don’t know what it’s going to do.”
Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, which includes hundreds of fishing groups and companies, worries that the government is failing to scrutinize proposals and adequately plan.
“What they’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s take this thing we’ve really never done here, go all in, objectors be damned,’” Ms. Hawkins said. “Coming from a fisheries perspective, we know there is going to be a massive-scale displacement. You can’t just go fish somewhere else.”
Fishing groups point to recent problems in Europe to justify their concerns. Orsted, the world’s largest offshore wind developer, for example, has sought a court injunction to keep fishermen and their equipment out of an area of the North Sea set for new turbines while it studies the area.
Orsted said that it had tried to “work collaboratively with fishermen” but that it had sought the order because its work was complicated by gear left in the area by a fisherman it could not identify. “To safely conduct the survey work and only as a last resort, we were left with no choice but to secure the right to remove this gear,” the company said in a statement.
When developers first applied in 2001 for a permit for Cape Wind, a project between Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, resistance was fierce. Opponents included Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who died in 2009, and William I. Koch, an industrialist.
Neither wanted the turbines marring the views of the coast from their vacation compounds. They also argued that the project would obstruct 16 historical sites, disrupt fishermen and clog up waterways used by humpback, pilot and other whales.
After years of legal and political battles, the developer of Cape Wind gave up in 2017. But well before that happened, Cape Wind’s troubles terrified energy executives who were considering offshore wind.
Projects up and down the East Coast are mired in similar fights. Residents of the Hamptons, the wealthy enclave, opposed two wind development areas, and the federal government shelved the project. On the New Jersey shore, some homeowners and businesses are opposing offshore wind because they fear it will raise their electricity rates, disrupt whales and hurt the area’s fluke fishery.
Energy executives want the Biden administration to mediate such conflicts and speed up permit approval.
“It’s been artificially, incrementally slow because of some inefficiencies on the federal permitting side,” said David Hardy, chief executive of Orsted North America.
Renewable-energy supporters said they were hopeful because the country had added lots of wind turbines on land — 66,000 in 41 states. They supplied more than 8 percent of the country’s electricity last year.
Ms. Lefton, the regulator who oversees leasing of federal waters, said future offshore projects would move more quickly because more people appreciated the dangers of climate change.
“We have a climate crisis in front of us,” she said. “We need to transition to clean energy. I think that will be a big motivator.”