Offshore wind seems poised to set sail on U.S. coasts. According to the Department of Energy, the burgeoning electricity source has the potential to generate more than 2,000 gigawatts (GW) of capacity per year—nearly double the nation’s current electricity use. Last fall, the Interior Department announced the commencement of construction on the nation’s first commercial scale wind farm, 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard, and approved a deal for the second off Rhode Island. The Biden administration aspires to launch 16 such sites by 2025 and generate 30 GW of energy by 2030. But what impact will all the construction have on wildlife and fishing? A 10-year, $11 million U.S. Wind and University of Maryland study aims to find out.
Wind is the fastest growing energy source in the U.S., providing 42 percent of the country’s new energy in 2020. So far, most of that has come from land-based wind turbines. But, faster and steadier offshore wind speeds offer more potential. And as the cost of efficiently harnessing offshore wind has plummeted, that potential has soared.
But the hubs of the newest and most efficient offshore wind turbines extend nearly 300 feet in the air and their ocean-bottom foundations reach an average depth of 165 feet. U.S. Wind, based in Baltimore, will partner with the University of Maryland to study how these massive structures, and their construction, will impact marine mammals, fish, and birds.
“We’re really pleased with this continued partnership with U.S. Wind on important questions related to the environmental impacts of offshore wind development,” said Peter Goodwin, president of the university’s Center for Environment Science, which will lead the research effort. “We look forward to working with them along with state and federal agencies to help make the best decisions to minimize impacts to the environment.”
But not everyone is pleased. A lone standoff last fall between a fishing boat and one of U.S. Winds’ giant research vessels symbolized the grievances of a key constituency: the ocean fishing community. Fishermen expressed concerns about damage to their equipment, disruption of the fishing grounds, and even the loss of their way of life. Annie Hawkins, the executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a trade association representing commercial fishermen, told the Guardian, “The fishing industry feels very strongly that they still do not have a meaningful voice in the process nor an authentic seat at the table.”
Wind-industry heads counter that their projects will leave vast ocean spaces open to fishermen, that their study will prepare them to respond to concerns, and that the turbines may, in fact, offer new opportunities for the fishing industry. The study aims to determine, for example, whether structure-oriented black sea bass will form large aggregations around turbine foundations. With all the wind on the horizon, though, another emerging technology may change the equation again, before the U.S. Wind research is complete, and move everything farther from the shores: floating turbines.