New York takes early lead as large-scale offshore wind starts rolling in the US

Following years of false starts in the fledgling industry, construction is set to begin on South Fork Wind farm near Long Island.

The 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm near Rhode Island is the first of only two operating U.S. offshore wind farms. (Ørsted)
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New York’s first offshore wind farm is set to start construction this month, kicking off what state and federal officials hope will be a boom in offshore wind development after years of delays.

Onshore construction work for the 132-megawatt South Fork Wind farm will begin in early February, starting with a new electrical substation on the east end of Long Island, according to the project’s developers. A subsea cable will later connect the 12 turbines standing in federal waters to Long Island’s grid, supplying enough power for roughly 70,000 typical homes every year.

Once completed, potentially by late 2023, the $2 billion project will be only the third of its kind in the United States — which trails far behind countries in Europe and Asia when it comes to offshore wind.

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This is a trailblazing project, certainly for New York but also for the industry,” said Jennifer Garvey, the New York market affairs manager for Ørsted. The Danish energy giant is jointly developing the project with Boston-based energy provider Eversource.

South Fork Wind is widely seen as a harbinger for the state’s broader offshore wind goals,” she told Canary Media. 

New York aims to build 9 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2035, enough to meet about 30 percent of the state’s total electricity needs. For densely populated areas like Long Island and neighboring New York City, the ocean represents one of the few available areas for installing large amounts of renewable energy capacity to meet demand from millions of households.

More than 4.3 gigawatts of offshore wind projects are already under development in New York, including the planned 1.2-gigawatt Beacon Wind farm and the 2.1-gigawatt Empire Wind project, which is divided into two phases. Norwegian energy firm Equinor is developing both projects and recently opened an office in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, where the company is building a hub for wind turbine assembly and maintenance.

Five offshore wind projects totaling 4.3 GW are in active development in New York state, though only South Fork Wind is nearing construction. (NYSERDA)

New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) has pledged to invest $500 million to upgrade ports and expand manufacturing and supply-chain infrastructure to support the massive buildout of offshore wind. We must harness the potential of offshore wind to fuel our economy forward and meet our ambitious climate goals,” the governor said in a January statement.

Six other East Coast states are accelerating long-simmering efforts to install turbines off their own shores: Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia. As with New York, leaders in those states say they want not only to boost clean energy locally but also to claim a share of the thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic development that’s expected to follow when the fledgling industry takes off.

As U.S. lags, China leads global offshore wind boom

To date, the United States has put just two wind projects in the water: a 30-megawatt wind farm near Block Island, Rhode Island, and a 12-megawatt pilot project in coastal Virginia. Together their combined capacity equals roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of the global total.

Worldwide, some 200 offshore wind farms totaling nearly 34.4 gigawatts were spinning at the end of 2020, according to the latest count by the International Renewable Energy Agency. Nearly three-quarters of that total is in the U.K. and the rest of Europe. Then last year China surged into the lead on offshore wind, reportedly adding a record 16.9 gigawatts in 2021 alone as developers sought to secure government subsidies before they expired. (Full global figures from 2021 are not yet available.)

The United States has been slow to follow suit over the last decade, and earlier attempts to build offshore wind farms — including most notably Cape Wind in Massachusetts — were ultimately abandoned. Initially, states and federal agencies lacked the needed permitting processes and regulations, creating major roadblocks for developers. Utilities and investors were wary of backing the novel and expensive technology, while litigious opponents worked to keep turbines away from waterfront communities and commercial fishing zones.

Now, that’s starting to change, experts say. The cost of building and operating offshore wind farms has steadily declined worldwide as more projects have risen from the water. In the U.S., new state and federal policies to promote offshore wind development are providing much-needed certainty to developers, utilities and financial backers.

Last year, President Joe Biden’s administration set the nation’s first offshore wind goal to install 30 gigawatts of capacity by 2030, or enough to power more than 10 million homes for a year. To help meet that target, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — which regulates energy development in federal waters — this month will sell leases to develop 480,000 acres off the New York Bight, a triangular area in the Atlantic Ocean between the eastern tip of Long Island and New Jersey.

That’s a very good signal to the industry that this is happening,” said Chelsea Jean-Michel, a wind energy analyst at BloombergNEF. The U.S. is an attractive market right now because we have this transparency in leasing and we have this government support, in terms of permitting to speed things along.”

The Biden administration has awarded final approval to two commercial-scale offshore wind farms: New York’s South Fork Wind and the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The latter wind farm, developed by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables, is expected to be operational in 2024.

Still, BloombergNEF expects the United States will fall about 4 gigawatts short of its 2030 goal, owing to the long development timeline for offshore wind projects. Jean-Michel said the time between when a developer secures an offshore wind lease and when the turbines begin to deliver power to the grid is generally about eight years — a period that involves mapping wind resources, conducting environmental reviews, and securing dozens of permits from village councils up to federal agencies to lay cables, build substations and install turbines.

Because of all these different pieces of the puzzle, we’re looking at 2022 as being one of the last years to commission a project [to begin operation] by 2030,” she said. 

New York’s first offshore wind farm

The South Fork Wind farm will have taken a decade to develop by the time it’s operating late next year. The longer timeline partly reflects some of the early growing pains that projects faced as government agencies and utilities developed their offshore wind policies in real time.

South Fork Wind will stand about 35 miles east of Montauk Point, the easternmost tip of Long Island. In 2013, the company Deepwater Wind secured commercial offshore wind energy leases for the project, which was initially proposed as a 90-megawatt, 15-turbine wind farm. Four years later, the Long Island Power Authority signed a 20-year agreement to purchase power from South Fork Wind, clearing a significant hurdle for the project’s development.

A rendering of the offshore wind substation to be deployed at the South Fork Wind project in Long Island, NY (Ørsted and Eversource)

Deepwater Wind also built the nearby Block Island offshore wind farm, which became the first of its kind in American waters when it began operating in 2016. Ørsted later acquired the Rhode Island–based developer and took over its offshore wind portfolio, which includes the proposed 880-megawatt Sunrise Wind project, also near the eastern tip of Long Island.

South Fork Wind has since expanded to a 132-megawatt project using a dozen 11-megawatt turbines.

The project has long faced opposition from commercial fishing organizations in New York and Rhode Island, who say they’re worried the turbines will disrupt fishing activities and disturb nurseries for fish species, including the Atlantic cod. In its final environmental impact statement for the project, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said that while wind farm construction and operation is unlikely to harm marine species in the long term, it may have major” adverse impacts for individual fishing operations, depending on where and what they fish. 

Environmental groups, labor unions and faith-based organizations have expressed strong support for South Fork Wind over the years. 

Jessica Enzmann, a senior organizer for the Sierra Club on Long Island, said the project reflects a shift away from polluting, fossil-fuel-fired power plants and toward a cleaner, job-creating industry. Ørsted has noted that its South Fork Wind project will require not just assembling and installing turbines but also producing steel and components for turbine foundations, laying sea cables and underground transmission lines, building onshore electrical equipment and expanding port operations.

We’re going to be cutting emissions, mitigating climate change and…bringing a tremendous amount of economic opportunity in the form of jobs and community benefits,” Enzmann said of New York’s nascent offshore wind industry.

The just transition of workers is a necessary part of having our electric sector become renewable,” she added.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.