Offshore Wind 101: Answers from Experts

There are lots of questions swirling around about offshore wind, a promising renewable energy source. In this two-part story series, we share answers from experts at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Wildlife Federation.

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The wind that blows off the coasts of the United States is an abundant, untapped clean energy opportunity. Large turbines in the ocean can harness the consistent wind resources there and convert those into clean, renewable power. Offshore wind energy can help America shift away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change and instead supply our densely populated coastal communities with clean power when and where it is needed most. Coastal areas make up less than 10% of total land in the contiguous United States but are home to about 40% of the U.S. population.

In this two-part Q&A story series, experts from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) share answers to some common questions about offshore wind energy.

We spoke with experts from BOEM's Office of Renewable Energy Programs Projects and Coordination Branch. BOEM, within the U.S. Department of the Interior, leads the leasing and permitting processes for offshore wind energy in federal waters, which typically begin three miles from shore. BOEM works in consultation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal agencies, state leaders and stakeholder groups, including NWF. As America's largest conservation organization, NWF works across the country to unite Americans from all walks of life in giving wildlife a voice. We spoke with members of NWF's offshore wind energy team, including Senior Director Amber Hewett, Senior Campaign Manager Helen Rose Patterson and Wildlife Policy Specialist Shayna Steingard.

Question: How are sites selected for offshore wind? Who makes the decisions; how is the public involved?

BOEM: BOEM identifies potential areas for wind energy leasing through collaborative, analytical processes. One of the first things we do is consult with representatives of nearby tribes, states and natural resources agencies. This helps us determine which locations are suitable for offshore wind energy development. BOEM also uses a modeling tool developed by NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science to analyze the combined ocean use, conservation and fishing data in a particular area. It takes at least a year and a half to complete the initial planning and analysis phase.

NWF: Particularly off of the densely populated mid-Atlantic and Northeast states, offshore wind can be harnessed with advanced technology and deliver renewable, local power into places with high energy demand and heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels. To find potential areas for offshore wind projects, BOEM and other groups look at a variety of factors, including the presence of wildlife (particularly protected species), existing ocean uses, wind patterns, fisheries, military needs and developer interest. There are several opportunities for the public to get involved in the site-selection process. At the earliest stages of considering an area, BOEM and state officials typically host in-person and virtual meetings that are open to the public. Anyone can attend and ask questions. Afterward, recordings of the meeting are available on BOEM's website. The public can provide their comments as part of the official public record during the site selection process, and BOEM must consider all comments.

Four Wind Turbines in Purple-Blue Water in Front of Blue Sky With Fluffy White Clouds

Question: How are offshore wind projects approved? How long does it take?

BOEM: Approving wind projects is a multi-step process that includes phases for leasing, site assessment and characterization, and then, finally, construction and operations. The timing depends on many factors.

Once BOEM identifies potential locations for wind energy development, we hold a competitive lease sale. If we issue a commercial wind energy lease, the lessees cannot build facilities immediately. Instead, they are granted rights to propose and submit plans BOEM must first approve. After a lease is issued, the lessee submits a site assessment plan—essentially a proposal for collecting important data about the offshore area. Such plans typically include deploying meteorological and oceanographic buoys. In addition, lessees must conduct site characterization studies to determine if the area has other significance. For example, a location may be a feeding ground for migrating birds, a birthing ground for marine mammals or have archaeological value. The lessees have four and a half years to complete these studies and surveys. Once these are completed, lessees can submit a detailed construction and operations plan to BOEM for approval, including plans to decommission facilities before the lease's end.

BOEM conducts environmental and technical reviews before approving, denying or modifying these plans. This last phase before the wind energy project's installation lasts approximately two years, and we heavily emphasize public engagement and commentary during this time.

NWF: There are many chances for public engagement and comment throughout BOEM's formal process of designating offshore wind lease areas. The winnowing process—often a multi-year process meant to narrow a large wind energy area's scope—provides ample opportunity for the public to raise concerns and submit recommendations. Members of the public may also reach out to state and local elected officials with their concerns or questions. These officials can help support the public's engagement in the process and find answers.

Question: How will we get the power onshore?

BOEM: As Energy Program Specialist Josh Gange explains, electricity generated from offshore wind projects in federal waters will be brought to shore through subsea transmission cables, which are included in any commercial offshore wind leases. The power is generally purchased by a state entity, which (among other things) dictates where on land the power is connected to the grid. This is known as the point of interconnection.

NWF: The electricity generated by offshore wind turbines will travel to shore in buried transmission lines that will connect to the existing grid on land. The cable routes and the locations for interconnection on shore undergo review and permitting processes, and the public has several opportunities to provide input. Given that transmission lines will pass through federal and state waters and ultimately reach shore in a particular city or town, permitting a transmission system can be time consuming and is an important component of early community engagement. As more offshore wind projects are proposed near one another, long-term transmission planning and necessary grid upgrades will be increasingly important to ensure offshore wind power can reach where it needs to go, with minimal environmental impact along the way.

Red Construction Equipment Installs a White and Yellow Wind Turbine in Bright Blue Water Against a Clear Blue Sky

Question: What does responsibly developing offshore wind look like?

BOEM: BOEM takes its responsibility to manage the development of energy and mineral resources in an environmentally and economically responsible way very seriously. Working with tribes, governments, stakeholders and ocean users, BOEM identifies the places that appear to pose the greatest prospects for energy development and pose the least environmental or other user conflict. We use the best available science, regulatory certainty and community engagement as guides.

Through our statutory and regulatory mandates, and by working closely with other federal agency partners, BOEM's goal is to ensure that offshore wind projects avoid negative impacts to crucial environmental, cultural and historic resources to the greatest extent possible and—where impacts cannot be avoided—identify required mitigation measures.

NWF: NWF has developed recommendations for how we can swiftly increase grid capacity while minimizing impacts. Responsible development starts with avoiding impacts on wildlife and the environment wherever possible. The impacts that cannot be avoided will need to be minimized so that when wildlife does interact with offshore wind development, they are less likely to be harmed. When harm is likely to occur or does occur, it is then important to mitigate, or compensate for, that harm. Responsible development also requires that potential impacts are monitored so that we can continue to learn and adapt our methods for reducing impacts and risk.

Responsible development also addresses impacts and opportunities for people and communities. This includes minimizing the impacts on other ocean uses, such as fishing, shipping and recreation. Development activities should also happen in consultation with Native American tribes and communities, local government and other stakeholders. All efforts should be informed by the best science and technological information. The result is a science-based and stakeholder-informed process to define and develop responsible offshore wind projects.

Question: How will communities benefit from offshore wind?

BOEM: Offshore wind presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a new industry in the United States—one that can combat climate change while creating good-paying union jobs and ensuring accessible economic opportunities for all communities. At the same time, we know that tribes, states and communities rely on the ocean for their livelihoods and cultural identity, so their input is crucial. We want to advance offshore wind energy development opportunities in a responsible manner—one that avoids or reduces impacts on the environment and existing uses.

NWF: It is important that communities are able to define for themselves the benefits of offshore wind development. This might look like reductions in pollution from closing dirty fossil fuel facilities, investments in workforce training and access to jobs created by this new industry, or support for local industries to adapt to the changes the clean energy transition will bring.

State and federal officials, as well as contracted developers, are responsible for conducting extensive community engagement to be informed and influenced by what they learn, and to ensure that meaningful community benefits reach the people and places that need them.

Stay tuned for part two of the Offshore Wind 101 series. Construction photo courtesy of Deepwater Wind.

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