The Future of Offshore Wind Energy

By: Sally Hopley

In the sustainability field, engagement and buy-in are crucial for creating change from “business as usual” to a sustainable situation that takes into account the triple bottom line of people, planet, and financial. As a sustainability analyst at Verdis and graduate of Virginia Tech’s XMNR program, I’ve learned the value of stakeholder engagement and speaking to different perspectives and perceptions.

The United States energy use is sourced by only ten percent renewable energy. Offshore wind energy generation offers an opportunity in the race to decrease the dependence on fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy security, and create jobs. While European companies have been enjoying the economic benefits of offshore wind since 1991[1], the United States only put in a miniature test turbine late in 2013 off the coast of Maine to gather data. Over 20 different offshore wind projects have been proposed all across the country, but most have been cancelled or face continuous delays.

The answer to why offshore wind has yet to take off in the United States is complex and varies by individual project, but two different, yet connected, patterns emerge from the stories of failed projects: lack of regulatory framework and public opposition.

Understanding the public opposition is key to addressing it and developing proper public outreach. Research explains that individuals experience “place attachment”[2]: a sense of ownership towards a geographic area that is not actually owned by them, but is rather a place of significant emotional and economic ties. Offshore wind public opposition is typically not an opposition solely on the appearance of turbines in the water, but rather a deeper conflict of rejecting their homes being developed and managed without their consent.

There is also a conflict between project developers and what the residents consider a reasonable development. The public prefers smaller developments more than large developments, while policy makers show a trend towards planning larger projects to maximize benefits and cost-efficiency.[3]

This hesitant public runs right into the second issue for offshore wind: a lack of regulatory structure. Legislation is often non-existent when an offshore wind project is proposed for an area, but turbines cannot be built without legislation and legislation is difficult to create with a resistant public. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is assisting states by creating this framework.

The federal government is working to streamline and speed the development of offshore wind and has developed a new initiative called Smart From the Start to address permitting and leasing issues on the East Coast and Great Lakes.[4]

Public inclusion in the decision making process is essential to creating empowerment and education.[5] It is also important to create a forum for objective, third party information to be exchanged on any proposed project; to reduce the misinformation and increase inclusion.  One example is the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council.

Since Cape Cod first proposed the Nantucket Sound Project over 10 years ago, significant progress in understanding public opposition and policy needs have been made. Before reaping the benefits of offshore wind, more emphasis on neutral information exchange, as well as a national outreach campaigns, needs to be developed. Offshore wind in the United States is still a growing industry with outreach, regulatory, economic, and technical challenges. With continued coordinated efforts and understanding public perspectives, perhaps the United States can begin to realize the benefits of offshore wind energy.

[2] Devine-Wright, Patrick. (2004). Beyond NIMBYism: towards an Integrated Framework for Understanding Public Perceptions of Wind Energy. Wind Energy, 8, 125-139.

[3] Devine-Wright, Patrick. (2004). Beyond NIMBYism: towards an Integrated Framework for Understanding Public Perceptions of Wind Energy. Wind Energy, 8, 125-139.

[4] DoE, 2011.

[5] Haggett, Claire. (2010, October 29th.). “Understanding public responses to offshore wind power.” Energy Policy, 39 (503-510).