As part of a push toward a green energy future for America, the Biden administration has unveiled plans to develop the first offshore wind farms in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico. Although still in their infancy, the initiatives could one day generate enough electricity to power more than 3 million homes, according to federal projections.
“Of course, that’s something we’re passionate about,” Jason Ryan, senior media relations manager at American Clean Power, told VOA. “The rental plan shows that the energy transition must take place and that it must take place quickly.”
Boosting a national offshore wind energy sector has become a central part of President Joe Biden’s strategy to fight climate change. Unlike burning oil, natural gas or coal, wind power produces zero carbon emissions.
But the United States still has a long way to go. While onshore wind power generation has increased rapidly in recent years, offshore wind farms remain rare. Only two small wind farms are operational – on the country’s Atlantic coast in Rhode Island and Virginia. A larger farm was approved for Massachusetts last year and several “wind energy zones” are in various stages of review along the US West Coast.
Supporters of the administration’s announcement hope the development of wind energy infrastructure on parts of the proposed 283,000-hectare area in the Gulf will provide a much-needed boost to the industry while meeting the needs America’s growing energy sources. According to a 2020 study by the National Renewable Energy Lab, wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico could generate up to 508 gigawatts of electricity per year, double the consumption of US Gulf states.
Others, meanwhile, issue a warning.
“There are definite upsides to the Biden administration’s announcement, especially since a significant investment from the federal government accompanies it,” said Eric Smith, associate director of the Institute of Energy at Tulane University in New Orleans, “but there are downsides as well. I don’t think the public has a broad understanding of the inherent limitations of renewable energy.”
Increase energy independence
Since the oil crisis of the 1970s, the United States has sought to achieve energy independence by attempting to reduce its dependence on foreign energy sources.
That goal has at times proven difficult, a fact underscored more recently when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting international sanctions against Moscow rattled global fossil fuel markets. Significantly higher gasoline prices, which only recently began to fall, have sparked protests from American consumers.
“I guess that’s part of where we see this urge from the Biden administration,” Smith told VOA. “It probably has its roots in our insecurity about a reliable energy supply from international sources.”
And if the United States is looking to increase its domestic energy capacity, the Gulf of Mexico has already risen to the challenge, but with fossil fuels.
“The Gulf of Mexico has supplied up to 15-17% of national oil and gas production, so there is extensive infrastructure with well-developed ports and a skilled workforce,” Ryan said of American Clean Power.
This expertise has been harnessed for projects that span across the country. Several Louisiana companies involved in offshore drilling have been hired to help build the country’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island. Similarly, New Orleans, Louisiana is home to America’s first private test facility for new offshore wind turbine blade technology.
“These opportunities are only going to continue,” Ryan said, “and they will be significant as wind power gets started and we develop our national supply chain.”
Advantages and disadvantages
A site being explored for a wind farm is 40 kilometers off the coast of Galveston, Texas. The other is 90 kilometers off Lake Charles, Louisiana.
The sites are attractive because the Gulf of Mexico is known to have smaller waves and shallower waters than the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, making construction of newly proposed projects potentially less expensive.
Of course, the Gulf of Mexico also presents challenges. Recent hurricanes have passed over the very waters where the proposed wind farms would be located. A record hurricane season in 2020, for example, produced five named storms that hit Louisiana. Hurricanes Laura and Delta devastated the Lake Charles region of the state.
It’s not just the potential for storms that has some experts worried. Comparative costs are also a factor.
“In Rhode Island, for example, the cost of power from natural gas is high, which makes wind power attractive,” said Smith of Tulane University. “In Louisiana, the economy is different. We can produce energy from natural gas at a quarter of what it would cost us to produce energy from wind.
Smith added, “The Rhode Island market pays 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt for wind power, while Louisiana and Texas can produce a kilowatt of power from gas for only 6 cents.”
Priority to the environment
While proponents of renewable energy point to upcoming technological advances that will reduce costs, financial considerations are among several factors the Biden administration is weighing. By rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021, the United States has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent by 2030. Expanding production and Renewable energy use is key to achieving this goal.
Environmental activists along the Gulf Coast and across the country want America to honor that pledge.
“We think these wind farms are a very good development,” Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf, told VOA. “It provides clean energy, and it does so without the risk of spills or the same level of pollution associated with offshore oil and gas development.”
But Sarthou points out that, as with any form of development, especially energy production, there are risks to a fragile ecosystem that must be considered.
“Turbines can negatively impact seabirds and migratory birds, noise during construction can be harmful to dolphins and whales, and the construction of new infrastructure has the potential to destroy marine habitats,” he said. she declared. “All this must be taken into account in order to reduce the impacts.”
New energy development projects in the Gulf of Mexico invariably affect the region’s famous seafood industry. Last week, the federal government sent officials from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to meet with local shrimpers.
Members of the Louisiana Shrimp Task Force have expressed concern that building wind farms in the Gulf could destroy productive shrimp fishing grounds and further damage a local industry already punished by environmental disasters and foreign competition.
Rodney Olander, a member of the task force, said he and other shrimpers came out of the meeting pleased with what they heard from federal officials.
“If they had come here and said they were building windmills over this productive shrimp fishing area, we would have had a lot to say about it,” Olander said, “but instead from that it seems like they really listen to everyone they watch where we shrimp and stay away from that they watch where the birds migrate and stay away from that they watch where the coast guard wants stay open and they stay away from that – they balance each other out a lot.
Don’t put the eggs in one basket
Smith said that while progress is being made, it’s important to stay realistic about the limits of renewables like wind power.
“The data shows that the wind is not blowing about 55% of the time and the sun is not shining 75% of the time,” he told VOA. “Once events like ice storms in West Texas or droughts in California have strained our energy systems, we find that we cannot yet sustain a system that is 40-50% carbon. renewable energy. That’s why California is currently investing in new gas-electric infrastructure and reversing its decision to shut down its last nuclear plant – renewables are still too unreliable for our energy needs.
Olander said that as a lifelong Louisianan, he would rather not see the oil industry go away. He feels a loyalty to an industry that he says has provided so many jobs to the area over the years.
“Oil has been such a huge part of Louisiana and Texas for decades,” he said, “and people like to pretend that wind and solar power are going to completely replace oil. I don’t see that happening. happen and, to be honest with you, I hope that doesn’t happen.
Yet, he acknowledged, he has heard more and more about renewable energy over the years. He tries to keep an open mind to give the growing technology a foothold in the local economy.
“Having wind power to accompany our oil and gas is worth trying,” he said. “They say don’t put all your eggs in one basket, don’t they?” »