That was quite a feel-good story in Yale Environment 360 last week. The headline, On U.S. East Coast, Has Offshore Wind’s Moment Finally Arrived?, didn’t really rate a question mark, considering how the subhead brimmed with optimism:
After years of false starts, offshore wind is poised to take off along the East Coast. Commitments by states to purchase renewable power, support from the Biden administration, and billions in new investment are all contributing to the emergence of this fledgling industry.
About time. Early this century, I was an ardent proselytizer for wind power, “the only non-polluting means of generating energy that is commercially available on a large scale,” as I described it in an Appeal to the environmental community to support the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound in 2002.
Sadly, in one of the greatest NIMBY flameouts before or since, the 470-megawatt Cape Wind project was set upon by well-connected Cape Codders like the Kennedy family and Walter Cronkite, keeping it from fruition. Even a proposal to repurpose a mine-damaged Adirondacks mountaintop with a mere five or six wind turbines fell before the power of view-minded conservationists.
But wind power’s political travails did help kindle my interest in carbon taxing. “If carbon fuels were taxed for their damage to the climate,” I mused in a 2006 article in Orion magazine, “wind power’s profit margins would widen, and surrounding communities could extract bigger tax revenues from wind farms,” helping ease the path to public acceptance and regulatory approvals.
Wind power today
Today, though fewer than ten wind turbines operate at just two offshore U.S. sites, tens of thousands of onshore turbines together are generating 8 percent of U.S. electricity (based on preliminary 2020 data). Percentage-wise, Iowa led the nation with 42 percent of its electricity production coming from wind in 2019, and Texas (yes, Texas) leads in absolute megawatt-hours from wind with a whopping 93 million megawatt-hours in 2020, nearly 28 percent of the U.S. total.
Now, the Yale story reports, “New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland have together committed, through legislation or executive action, to buying about 30,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore electricity by 2035.”
A quarter of those megawatts, 7,500, would be located off New Jersey’s Atlantic coast, a goal that NJ Gov. Phil Murphy affirmed in a statement last September announcing the state’s Offshore Wind Strategic Plan.
What physical scale do those 7,500 megawatts constitute? Let’s use as our metric the new crop of super-giant turbines from leading wind-power manufacturers. According to the Yale story, Vestas, Orsted and General Electric are today selling wind machines in the 12-14 megawatt range — an astonishing notion, considering that not long ago the 3.6-megawatt Cape Wind turbines were said to be pushing the envelope.
Let’s stipulate 12.5 megawatts, since 80 of them conveniently multiply to 1,000 MW. Meeting NJ Gov. Murphy’s 7,500 MW target would then entail erecting 600 of these super-giants off the state’s roughly 115-mile-long Atlantic coast.
If 600 huge windmills seem daunting, try multiplying the number by five. Yes, 3,000 mammoth turbines providing 37,000 MW from offshore wind is what could be required if New Jersey state goes all-in for decarbonization over the next several decades, according to one energy vision that is a kind of apotheosis of the Green New Deal.
The idea of 100% Wind-Water-Sunlight
That vision is the all-renewables 100% wind-water-sunlight (“100% WWS”) conception propounded by Stanford physicist-engineer Mark Jacobson and colleagues, under the aegis of an NGO known as the Solutions Project.
The idea is for electricity to power all energy uses — not just lights and appliances and electronics but also cars, trucks, heat and industry. Even, eventually, aircraft, either through batteries or, more likely, hydrogen fuel manufactured by electrolyzing water. Electricity is both an efficient energy form for delivering “energy services” and the easiest to provide from all-zero-carbon sources: wind turbines, solar panels and other sunlight-based generation, and water power (though few new hydro-electric facilities would be erected; the existing hydro base would be used mostly for peak supply and to firm up the power grid).
The Jacobson et al. vision has been written about widely (here’s Jacobson’s 2014 TED talk; also see link to pdf paper at the end of this paragraph) and need not be rehashed here. We use it here as a benchmark. References are to the detailed 2015 Mark Z. Jacobson et al. paper, “100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States,” Energy Environ. Sci., 2015, 8, 2093 (14 MB downloadable pdf).
By The Numbers: New Jersey Offshore Wind in a Zero-Carbon Scenario
- 32,900 MW — New Jersey’s total 2050 “end-use energy load” under 100% WWS, expressed as megawatts operating continuously all year. From Table 1 of the Jacobson et al. paper.
- 288,204,000 MWh — New Jersey’s total 2050 “end-use energy load” under 100% WWS, in megawatt-hours. Calculated by multiplying the preceding MW figure by the number of hours in a year (8,760).
- 55.5% — Share of New Jersey’s electricity to be provided by offshore wind, from Jacobson’s Table 3. Another 10% is assumed to come from onshore wind, for a total NJ wind percentage of 65.5%, which is consistent with Jacobson’s U.S. total of 50% (31% onshore, 19% offshore), considering the state’s small land area relative to its coastline. (Another 27.25% of the needed electricity in the 100%WWS scenario would be generated by utility-owned-and-managed photovoltaic arrays, with another roughly 3% each from PV installations on residential and commercial buildings.)
- 160,000,000 MWh — New Jersey’s 2050 electricity to be provided by offshore wind. Calculated by multiplying the #2 and #3 figures above.
- 50% — assumed capacity factor of the offshore wind turbines. That’s more than the 42.5% in the Jacobsen paper (Table 2, FN), but less than the 60-64% that General Electric optimistically touts for its 12-14 MW turbines.
- 54,750 MWh — annual electricity from each 12.5-MW offshore turbine. Calculated by multiplying 12.5 MW figure by the number of hours in a year.
- 3,000 offshore wind turbines — calculated by dividing the #4 figure by the #6 figure. (The calculation yields 2,920, which we round to 3,000.)
Can this be done? Can New Jersey install (or, more precisely, organize and govern the installation of) 3,000 massive wind machines, with towers extending 850 feet above the ocean’s surface, and 350-foot-long blades?
More to the point, by how much would a robust carbon tax cut the required number of wind turbines?
That question is more complex than it may appear. Though it’s not hard to project emission reductions from different carbon tax levels, some of those reductions would come about from swapping out fossil fuels in favor of renewables. That’s an invitation to double-counting.
In other words, we need to separate out the demand-reducing work of carbon taxing from its supply-shifting effects, lest we take credit for the tax’s shifting electricity generation to new wind turbines while neglecting to count those turbines as part of the needed supply.
We hope to provide those calculations in a follow-on post, later this month.