Offshore Wind’s Future: A Conversation

At an event keynoted by Professor Michael Gerrard of the Sabin Center, experts discussed how the U.S. could catch up with Europe’s offshore wind industry.

Offshore wind

There is no shortage of mind-numbing projections for what’s to come should the world fail to adequately reduce greenhouses gas emissions. By 2100, many regions in the U.S., for example, will experience 50 to 60 percent greater mean annual precipitation, while other areas will record maximum temperatures 15 degrees Fahrenheit higher than what’s currently experienced. Sea levels, meanwhile, will also continue to rise, potentially inundating parts of Manhattan and other coastal areas.

“The long and short of it is, in order to meet our climate objectives, we need an utterly massive increase in renewables in the U.S., including offshore wind,” said Professor Michael Gerrard, the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, at a Sept. 18 event devoted to the future of offshore wind. “Yet the U.S. is way behind the rest of the world in building offshore wind.”

Held at Columbia Law School, the event featured a panel of experts and a keynote by Gerrard, exploring how the U.S. plans to catch up with Europe’s offshore wind industry, and why that is a welcome development. The discussion was part of a larger city-wide summit, Climate Week NYC, which explores ways to drive climate action forward.

Professor Michael GerrardAs Gerrard explained to the audience of about 175 students, lawyers, environmental activists and others, the U.S. currently generates a mere 30 megawatts of offshore wind energy from a single wind farm—compared to over 5,000 megawatts generated in the U.K. alone. By 2050, however, we’ll need to scale that up to 30,000 to over 300,000 megawatts.

Daunting as it sounds, Gerrard continued, it’s not an impossible goal. As Europe’s market matured, production costs have plummeted over the last decade, while new technologies like floating turbines mean waters off the West Coast—previously considered too deep for development—may be suitable after all, said panelist Katherine Kennedy, director of the Energy and Transportation Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. What’s more, offshore wind enjoys the support of diverse stakeholders, including from the environmental, corporate, and many fisheries communities.

Officials in some states, including New York, are on board, said panelist Doreen Harris, director of large-scale renewables at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). In 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged to reduce state emissions 80 percent by 2050, including through the generation of 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind energy—enough to power 1.25 million homes—by 2030. NYSERDA is tasked with working out the logistics of making those goals a reality, while Gerrard and his colleagues are smoothing out the legal pathways.

Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, and North Carolina have expressed interest in similar visions, and while states are largely taking the lead, Kennedy pointed out that there is also interest at the federal level. The business side of offshore wind development fits in with President Trump’s America-first strategy, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has an upcoming meeting with New York officials to discuss methods for scaling up the industry.

“These are big infrastructure projects with steel in the water, and the oil and gas industry supply chain in the Gulf Coast can be engaged,” Kennedy said. “This is a great opportunity to get the support of conservatives and the Trump administration and make a lot of progress. Let’s capitalize on it.”

Founded by Gerrard in 2009, the Sabin Center works across eight program areas to develop legal techniques to address climate change. The Sabin Center is a member center of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and frequently collaborates with Earth Institute scientists on cutting-edge interdisciplinary research. Gerrard is chair of the Earth Institute’s faculty and teaches courses in environmental law, energy regulation, and climate change law.

Also joining Gerrard, Harris, and Kennedy on the panel were Nancy Anderson of the Sallan Foundation, which organized the event; Amy Harris of Axios; Lars Sunde of Statoil; Anne Reynolds of the Alliance for Clean Energy; and Edward Anthes-Washburn of the Port of New Bedford (who joined by Skype because he needed to help run port operations while large numbers of boats were seeking shelter there from Hurricane Jose).

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Posted September 21, 2017

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