Fossil fuel stakeholders are leaning on carbon capture to keep coal and other fossil fuels relevant, but the technology has yet to prove itself commercially. Meanwhile, renewables are beginning to surge within the global energy market at scale, and at competitive prices. The opportunity for future growth is particularly evident in the U.S., which has only just begun to tap into its rich offshore wind resources.
No country for carbon capture
When the global offshore wind industry began to accelerate several years ago, the U.S. sat on the sidelines. Technological obstacles held back offshore development along the Pacific coast. State-level political obstacles were just as challenging along parts of the Atlantic seaboard.
That presented an opportunity for carbon capture technology to enter the energy market. However, the window has already slammed shut. One key setback occurred in 2015, when the U.S. Department of Energy suspended funding for FutureGen, the nation’s showcase carbon capture research and development project.
Over four years later, the U.S. still has only one utility-scale carbon capture project in operation, located at the Petra Nova coal power plant in Texas.
A second utility-scale carbon facility was planned for a power plant Mississippi, but it has been shelved in favor of natural gas.
Meanwhile, offshore wind turbine technology has already proven itself in the global market, and those turbines will soon be peppering the waters of the U.S. east coast.
East coast offshore wind roars into life
For some perspective on the opportunities for offshore wind growth in the U.S., consider that the nation’s first offshore wind farm, Block Island, began operations in 2016 in the waters of Rhode Island, with only five turbines and a combined capacity of 30 megawatts.
Now, a slew of new offshore wind projects are in the pipeline, and these projects are massive in comparison.
One significant development occurred last summer, when New York state moved forward on a new offshore wind energy contract with the Denmark-based energy firm Ørsted.
Dubbed Sunrise Wind, the 880-megawatt project will be located off the coast of eastern Long Island. (Last year, Ørsted also acquired Deepwater Wind, the developer of the Block Island wind farm.)
The New York wind farm is particularly significant because it is part of the state’s ambitious plans for renewable energy and job creation.
On the strength of that plan, New York state has also been tapped to lead the newly created National Wind R&D Consortium. The organization was formed under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy in order to accelerate wind energy development, both offshore and onshore.
Last summer, plans for another Ørsted-backed, 1,100-megawatt wind farm off the coast of New Jersey also passed a major milestone.
Offshore wind has scaled up, so now what?
While U.S. offshore wind development demonstrates how quickly a previously untapped offshore wind market can open up, there is still much that policymakers can do to accelerate the trend.
“The offshore market is really taking off,” observes Devapriyo Das, senior communication advisor at Ørsted. “The technology is here, and the key is to scale it up faster. That will take more ambitious policies from governments around the world.”
Das notes three areas in which the wind industry can make the case for wind power as a matter of broad public policy, over and above simply providing more clean power. All three involve a web of challenges and opportunities.
One area involves the emerging concept of a just transition, in which displaced energy workers and other local communities benefit from jobs created by renewable energy projects.
“In both the New York and New Jersey projects, the question is: How do you enable jobs and growth in local communities?” Das says.
Another is to protect and promote biodiversity at the wind farm, an area in which Ørsted has a head start.
The third area involves local content, and that may be the most difficult to address. "A faster transition means you should go with most competitive price, exploit existing economies of scale, and exploit the existing supply chain,” says Das, but those goals can come into direct conflict with community benefits and the aims of a just transition.
Despite the challenges, Ørsted intends to lead by example. The company is rapidly shedding its coal portfolio and plans to be coal-free by 2023, as an interim step to becoming “virtually carbon-free” in energy generation by 2025 — almost 30 years ahead of carbon neutrality goals laid out in the Paris climate agreement to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which carbon capture could scale up quickly enough to change Ørsted’s mind about coal, and it’s a safe bet that other energy firms are keeping an eye on the company’s progress toward a carbon-free future.
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