Biden admin to hold huge offshore wind sale, modernize grid

By Heather Richards, Peter Behr | 01/12/2022 01:23 PM EST

Lift boat assembling wind turbine.

In this 2016 file photo, a lift boat, which serves as a work platform, assembles a wind turbine off Block Island, R.I. Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

The Biden administration today announced a blockbuster wind sale in the waters off New York, alongside a bundle of clean energy initiatives aimed at speeding up renewable deployment and modernizing the country’s aging and vulnerable electricity grid.

The efforts include $20 billion in grid funding from the Department of Energy, a rural renewables pilot program from the Department of Agriculture and a multiagency collaboration to advance onshore solar, wind and geothermal energy projects.

In addition, the Interior Department next month will hold an offshore wind lease sale in a shallow-water region off the coasts of New York and New Jersey called the New York Bight.

This is the first lease sale for the Biden administration, which has already committed to rapidly expanding the fledgling offshore wind industry in the United States. The White House plans to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030, part of the larger push to zero out carbon emissions from the U.S. electricity sector.

The New York Bight lease area alone could support enough offshore wind to power 2 million homes.

“We are at an inflection point for domestic offshore wind energy development. We must seize this moment — and we must do it together,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

To support the massive growth of renewables anticipated by the Biden administration, the Department of Energy also announced today the launch of an initiative to deploy funding to accelerate grid improvements.

“The foundation of our climate and clean energy goals is a safe, reliable, and resilient electric grid that is planned hand-in-hand with community partners and industry stakeholders,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in a statement.

Granholm said the initiative would be a “job booster … to upgrade the nation’s grid, connect more Americans to clean electricity and broadband, and reliably move clean energy to where it’s needed most.”

A senior White House official said in a briefing last night that the grid efforts would be crucial to meeting Biden’s goal of reaching 100 percent carbon emissions-free electricity in the United States by midcentury, but they also respond to the need to prepare an aging grid in the face of climate change.

“Extreme weather events like the Dixie wildfire, Hurricane Ida and the 2021 Texas [grid] freeze have been made it clear that our existing energy infrastructure will not endure accelerating impacts of extreme weather spurred by climate change,” said the official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity.

He added: “On top of that, the queue of projects waiting to connect to the grid, both clean generation projects as well as electricity storage projects, they’re looking for interconnection.”

Biden administration officials also hinted at the need for greater action through Congress, where a reconciliation package filled with clean energy and climate-focused spending stalled shortly before the New Year.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) today echoed the need for that legislation to move forward, while praising Biden’s renewable initiatives.

“Meeting our climate goals requires a well-coordinated approach across the U.S. economy — one that taps into American ingenuity and harnesses our most abundant resources, including the wind that blows off our coasts,” he said in a statement. “It’s time for Congress to do our part. We must pass the clean energy investments in Build Back Better Act and truly unleash our nation’s clean energy future.”

The clean energy announcements pleased environmental groups in many respects but also spurred some criticism that renewable deployment isn’t paired with dramatically curbing fossil fuel emissions.

“The progress this administration has made to advance offshore wind and other renewable energy deployment is a valuable asset to a national climate strategy,” said Chase Huntley, the Wilderness Society’s vice president of strategy. “But the administration needs to be turning all the knobs as far as they can for the sake of climate, especially on public lands.”

Offshore wind

The New York Bight lease sale on Feb. 23 will offer 480,000 acres to offshore wind developers. It is the largest single lease offering to date in the United States.

Amanda Lefton, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, noted in a call with reporters today that the sale also shows that the administration is working with other ocean users, like fishermen.

Criticism from fishermen has been a long-standing hindrance for offshore wind developers and the federal agencies promoting offshore wind deployment.

But Lefton noted that BOEM removed more than 70 percent of the area considered for the sale to respect environmental concerns and other ocean users. She stressed that fishermen should be involved from the beginning of the process of wind development.

The administration has also built-in several provisions to tie the outcome of this sale to its clean energy and jobs goals, such as including measures meant to encourage developers to bundle union labor commitments into their bids.

The leases will also offer financial incentives for project proposals that will use turbine blades and other offshore wind components that are manufactured in the United States.

The announcement of the sale drew praise from industry groups that have been pushing for the New York Bight lease sale for years.

“With their large economies and massive populations, New York and New Jersey are two coastal states critical to the development of American offshore wind,” Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said in a statement, also noting that the economic benefits of this sale will cascade outside of the New York region.

“We are just scratching the surface of what American offshore wind will achieve,” he said.

Interior also announced today a new working group among BOEM, New York and New Jersey to collaborate on supply chain growth, job creation and other shared issues.

The two states have set some of the most ambitious targets in the country to procure offshore wind power and helped drive the growth of the industry in the United States.

“New Jersey is already committed to creating nearly one-quarter of the nation’s offshore wind-generation market,” Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said in a statement. “By acting on this shared vision, we can promote our joint offshore wind goals, and deliver benefits to residents of both states, particularly those in overburdened communities.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who recently announced a $500 million state investment in offshore wind, said growing a clean energy economy will take “collaboration at all levels.”

“We must chart an ambitious path toward a cleaner energy economy now more than ever, and today’s milestone further highlights New York’s commitment creating a greener tomorrow,” she said.

Other aspects of the clean energy rollout today include an agreement between NOAA Fisheries and Interior to collaborate on offshore wind.

Meanwhile, DOE will also be releasing a report identifying priorities for offshore wind growth, like grid development, improved permitting processes and supply chain expansion, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.

Grid modernization

The Department of Energy today disclosed its targeted strategy to channel more than $20 billion in funding to secure construction of major high-voltage transmission line projects that link prime sources of wind and solar energy to population centers.

“Transmission is critical to addressing the climate crisis through the decarbonization of the power sector and electrification of transportation and other sectors,” DOE said in a notice of intent on the program.

DOE’s statement also called transmission grid expansion a critical security investment: “Modernizing and expanding the nation’s electric transmission grid will improve the reliability and resilience of electricity delivery in the face of extreme weather and supply disruptions; unlock access to cleaner, lower-cost energy for consumers and businesses; and create good-paying American jobs.”

DOE said it will develop a national blueprint for transmission lines that help states achieve clean energy goals and strengthen power facilities against increasingly severe extreme weather assaults. A top priority, DOE said, is managing the distribution of thousands of megawatts of new power supplies coming into Atlantic states from offshore wind farms.

According to DOE, the plan seeks to overcome planning, funding and siting roadblocks that have effectively blocked large-scale power line projects in the United States for several decades. The notice includes the first details on how DOE, working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, plans to use the authority in the infrastructure law to designate “national corridors” where federal agencies and transmission developers could focus top priority project development. DOE’s collaboration with developers “can entail the design, development, construction, operation, maintenance, or ownership of a project,” the notice said.

Where necessary, DOE will become an “anchor customer” on new or upgraded transmission lines, buying up to 50 percent of a line’s power deliveries for up to 40 years, to ensure upfront financing of top priority projects. Once a project is fully funded, DOE would market its capacity to private parties.

Using new authority in the federal infrastructure law, DOE would team up with transmission line developers and with federal and state agencies including the Interior Department and the Forest Service to create rights of way for major power line projects. Existing rail and highway rights of way could be included in the new transmission paths, DOE said.

Timetables for carrying out the new policies are still being developed, DOE said.

Collaboration and acceleration

The Biden administration’s agencies are also signing on to a memorandum of understanding to coordinate and rapidly roll out clean energy projects onshore.

Though the announcement was sparse on details, this would include collaboration among the departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Energy and Defense and EPA.

"To reach a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035, the United States has to streamline the permitting process to deploy more renewable energy projects," said Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk in a statement. "This Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency will prioritize and expedite permitting decisions, create new jobs, and protect our Nation’s diverse land."

Streamlining the permitting process for energy projects has long been a concern for industries, both fossil fuel-based and nontraditional. But accelerated federal review has also often raised the ire of environmental groups that fear public input and environmental concerns will take a back seat to efficiency.

That conflict was particularly heated during the Trump administration’s push to tighten the timeline of environmental reviews for energy projects on public lands.

At last night’s press briefing, the senior White House official said that the Biden agency collaboration would not reduce the environmental review process.

“This is not about curbing any review; it’s about making more robust our ability to partner with folks who want to harness this clean energy on public lands,” he said.

Some conservation policy groups praised the administration’s efforts today.

Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Biden’s efforts will “modernize the electric grid and fuel economic growth.”

“The largest offshore lease sale to date will keep and create good union jobs,” she said. “Expediting clean energy deployment onshore will ensure that our public lands help tackle climate change rather than contribute to it. These are the benefits of taking climate action that can support communities across the country.”