“A great moment”: The USA gives the go-ahead for its first large offshore wind farm

The U.S. offshore wind sector took a giant step forward on Tuesday after authorities gave the go-ahead to build and operate the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind 1 project.

In a statement, the US Department of the Interior described the development that will take place in waters off the coast of Massachusetts as “the first major offshore wind project in the United States”.

The Vineyard Wind project is expected to create 3,600 jobs and “provide enough electricity for 400,000 households and businesses”.

The DOI added that a decision protocol has given Vineyard Wind “final federal approval to install 84 or fewer turbines off Massachusetts as part of an 800-megawatt offshore wind turbine.”

According to the Vineyard Wind team, the rig will use GE Renewable Energy’s giant Haliade-X turbines, which means only 62 are actually needed.

Vineyard Wind is a 50:50 joint venture between Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables. The latter is a subsidiary of Avangrid, which is part of the Iberdrola group, a large utility company headquartered in Spain.

According to Iberdrola, the investment in the project will amount to 2.5 billion euros. If everything goes according to plan, it could go into operation in 2023.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Jonathan Cole, Iberdrola’s global director of offshore wind, told CNBC that the project’s approval was “extremely important”.

“This is the approval that is required so that we can start building the project now,” he said.

“This is the first of its kind in the US and many other projects are expected to follow suit. So this is really the one that will get the US offshore wind sector going in earnest.”

“So it’s a big moment for this project and for our companies, but it’s also a big moment for the entire US offshore wind sector.”

Cole’s views have been corroborated by a number of organizations, including the National Ocean Industries Association.

Its president Erik Milito called the greenlighting of the Vineyard Wind project “an American energy milestone”.

“American offshore wind is an opportunity for generations and its prospects are safer with the Vineyard Wind Record of Decision,” he added.

Elsewhere, Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, hailed “a historic day for clean energy and for our country that has been in place for over a decade”.

“Now is the time to move offshore wind forward, catch up with global competitors and decarbonize our electricity grid so that the US can bring economic and environmental benefits to our citizens and combat climate change,” she added.

Tuesday’s news is the latest shot in the arm of the fledgling American offshore wind sector.

In March, the ministries of energy, home affairs and trade announced that offshore wind capacity should reach 30 gigawatts (GW) by 2030. The Biden government hopes to create thousands of jobs and billions in investments in the coming years.

If that goal is achieved, it would represent a significant expansion for the US. While America has a well-developed onshore wind industry, the country’s first offshore wind turbine, the 30 MW Block Island wind farm, wasn’t commissioned until late 2016.

Preliminary figures from the US Energy Information Administration show that the share of wind in utility-scale electricity generation was 8.4% for 2020.

In contrast, the share of natural gas and coal was 40.3% and 19.3%, respectively. Overall, fossil fuels had a share of 60.3%, while nuclear power plants and renewable energies had a share of 19.7% and 19.8%, respectively.

If you look at the global picture for offshore wind, the US still has some way to go before it catches up with more mature markets like Europe.

Last year, the sector there made investments of over 26 billion euros (around 31.5 billion US dollars), according to the industry association WindEurope. In 2020, 2.9 GW of offshore wind capacity was installed in Europe.

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