Understanding the New Offshore Wind Farms Initiative

April 07, 2021 by Tyler Charboneau

An ambitious $3 billion plan may greatly expand American wind-farm output to 30 GW by 2030. What details of this plan might involve engineers and the renewables market at large?

The Biden Administration has approved an ambitious $3 billion plan to greatly expand American wind-farm output. Through funding incentives and earmarked projects, the Department of the Interior hopes to rapidly accelerate the clean-energy movement. How might this undertaking affect the power engineering market?


The State of American Wind Power

As it stands, the United States is playing a game of sustainability catch-up with its global counterparts. According to the 2019 Census, there are almost 140 million (if not currently more) housing units nationwide. Accordingly, American offshore farms create disproportionately less electricity at about 42 MW total. European farms currently generate 25 GW by comparison, while Chinese equivalents produce about 9 GW. 


Block Island

Block Island wind farm was successfully installed off the cost of Rhode Island in 2016. Image used courtesy of Sea Grant Rhode Island

Why the disparity thus far? Though the U.S. nearly equals Europe in land area, it boasts less than half the population. Energy companies have seized that vast, unoccupied acreage for inland wind farms, coal plants, and nuclear plants to a limited degree. 

Renewables accounted for just 20% of American energy consumption in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration. While wind power constitutes a significant portion of that, it remains a drop in the bucket. The States’ Block Island farm also remains the sole offshore farm presently. Conversely, European renewable consumption checks in at 38%. 

The U.S. is now shooting for 30 GW of output by 2030. 


Projection of offshore wind power capacity

Projection of offshore wind power capacity from 2020–2030 in Europe, China, and the U.S. Image used courtesy of Alejandro de la Garza and Time

The Power Systems Behind Wind Turbines

Wind turbines rely on internal power electronics. These are central to the production, conversion, and distribution of electricity. What exactly do these turbines need? 

  • Doubly-fed generators, consisting of a wound rotor, induction generator, and AC/DC/AC converters
  • Synchronous generators
  • Inter-turbine cables
  • Substation transformer electronics (onshore and offshore)
  • Shore-bound transmission cables
  • Connections to existing power grids (including points of common coupling)

Substations, in particular, will grow more important. Offshore farms are expanding in size whilst moving further out into open waters. This requires a longer transmission pathway. Substantial transformers work to mitigate progressive voltage losses while stepping voltages up as currents approach the grid. AC/DC converters and export circuits are also integral. 

These structures also reduce cabling requirements. Consequently, large farms may especially benefit from using fewer subsea cables. The chance for long-term degradation is also lowered. Engineers must also consider burial depth—which determines a wind turbine's susceptibility to vessels and deep sea pressure. Fewer cables mean fewer failure points. 


Offshore wind farms

Because offshore wind farms are often built in deep waters, developers must consider a number of foundational techniques. Image used courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy

Traditional wind farms can reside over 18 miles outward, thus making maintenance more challenging. Floating wind turbines are popular stateside, extending that distance much further. Electronics and materials must be rugged enough to withstand repeated use amidst dynamic weather conditions. These turbines are poised to offer output at peak hours, namely, in the daytime when coastal winds are strongest. 


Funding Breakdown for Offshore Wind Farms

The Administration is set on making offshore wind development financially viable, offering $3 billion total in potential loans to renewables industry partners. The Department of Energy will disperse these funds as appropriate. Furthermore, the federal government will funnel over $230 million into seaport upgrades—necessary for nearby production, assembly, and storage of new wind turbines

Lastly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will pour $1 million into impact studies, thus assessing how farms impact coastal communities. 

The government's first major undertaking is to establish offshore wind territory, situated between Long Island and New Jersey. If successful, the project will then establish farms near coastal population centers, like New York City. 


Wind-generated power

Wind-generated power has become a much more significant presence in the renewable energy space in the past 20 years. Image used courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration

The National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium—a brainchild of the Energy Department and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority—will contribute $8 million to 15 offshore development projects. 

Eastern seaboard aside, the opportunity is massive. The U.S. has 12,383 miles of coastline and 88,633 miles of shoreline. Initial successes could theoretically lead to immense offshore expansion.


Future Engineering Jobs Outlook

As turbine technologies advance, the onus will be on engineers to design stronger, more efficient systems that handle the demands of an evolving power grid. Researchers must consider how electronics can compensate for different connection voltages and distribution voltages. This project may give rise to more prominent intersections between materials science and circuit design. 

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory claims that the U.S. can produce over 2,000 GW of peak offshore capacity. An operation of that scale demands armies of engineers—even though experts forecast a fraction of that growth in the near future.

The White House indicates that 44,000 workers may have roles pertaining to offshore wind by 2030—supported by 33,000 additional workers in coastal communities.