Biden advances another offshore wind farm — this one in N.Y.

By Heather Richards | 06/17/2021 12:37 PM EST

The Bureau of Energy Management today announced it will begin an environmental impact statement for the Empire Wind offshore wind project in the New York Bight. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The Biden administration has begun an environmental review of a proposed wind farm off the coast of New York, the latest in an accelerating race to raise the first fleet of turbines in the northeast Atlantic.

Empire Wind, a joint venture between oil giants Equinor ASA and BP PLC, would create enough wind energy to power 1 million homes. The proposal calls for 174 turbines in the New York Bight, a shallow-water region between New York and New Jersey.

This is the fifth offshore wind project to progress this year, as the Biden administration chases a goal to decarbonize the U.S. electricity grid by 2035. The administration says this push, which includes permitting 16 offshore wind farms by the end of President Biden’s term, will generate some 80,000 jobs.

Biden has committed to advancing the offshore wind sector, in keeping with a pangovernment focus on responding to the warming climate. That effort is expected to help drive a historic boom for the industry in the United States, where just seven offshore wind turbines currently spin.

"As coastal states look to offshore wind to help fulfill their clean energy goals to combat climate change and create good-paying jobs, BOEM is working diligently to evaluate environmental and multiple use considerations while engaging with our government partners, industry, other ocean users and key stakeholders," said Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Amanda Lefton in a statement.

Lefton is a former energy adviser for the state of New York, where the 2,000-megawatt Empire project will also be key to reaching the state’s climate target of 9,000 MW of offshore wind power by 2035.

"Clearly this is a really important project for New York and the entire industry writ large because of its size," said Joe Martens, executive director of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance.

Empire 1 and 2 are projected to create an average of 880 jobs annually over an eight-year development process. Once they are online, operations and maintenance would support about 300 long-term jobs, according BOEM.

The two parts of the project will be constructed separately and electrically isolated, with two separate substations at sea to divert the wind energy into high-voltage export cables headed for land. One cable would carry power to an onshore point in Brooklyn and another to Long Island.

Originally, the Empire project was advanced by Equinor alone. The Norwegian power firm won two solicitations rounds with the state of New York.

In part, this wind farm proposal was approved because Equinor’s plans include a push to bring a manufacturing facility to the port of Albany and upgrades to the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which will serve as an offshore wind hub for the developer.

Economic development and boosting underserved communities are part of the point system New York uses in choosing its offshore wind projects.

Then BP bought a 50% stake in Equinor’s U.S. projects last year as part of the oil supermajor’s path to offsetting its carbon emissions that includes a target to help support 50 gigawatts of renewable energy by the end of the decade.

An Equinor spokesperson said the company was pleased by the progress announced today.

"We will continue to closely engage with federal officials, state regulators and a wide range of interested stakeholders as we work together in completing one of the largest offshore wind projects in the US," the spokesperson said in a statement.

A unique turbine layout?

There is some hope that the Empire project made new inroads with one of offshore wind’s persistent critics: commercial fishers.

The developer met with regional fishing groups several times during its planning process to weigh sharing space with fishermen in the busy New York Bight.

The bight is home to overlapping fisheries, as well as being one of the most trafficked ports in the northeast Atlantic for other marine activity.

The construction and operations plan that the Biden administration is reviewing is said to have an unusual turbine layout designed as a compromise with fishermen.

"I’m going on faith here that what I heard is going to be in there," said Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, who had not yet seen the final construction proposal but applauded the collaborative effort that went into a "unique" layout to address the needs of the power company and of fishing interests.

David Marks, head of communications and public affairs with Equinor Wind US, said the company "made significant adjustments" to the project plans due to feedback from fishermen.

Marks said Equinor worked with RODA "on an Empire Wind layout that allows fishing as much as feasible, balancing wind development with fishing needs."

The Bight is likely to only get busier as more offshore wind projects are proposed and built to meet New York’s climate targets.

The Biden administration could hold an additional offshore wind lease auction in the Bight as soon as this year. It released a proposed sale notice last week and will release final details in the next few months.

The sale and the Empire Wind announcement are the latest in a series of offshore wind actions the administration has taken since Biden’s inauguration.

Last month, the Interior Department approved the construction plan for Vineyard Wind off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., the likely first full-scale offshore wind project to begin construction in the United States. The administration has invited industry proposals for offshore wind interest in the Gulf of Mexico and committed to accelerating the first offshore wind offerings in the Pacific.

It also has recently begun the review process for Ocean Wind, a project proposed off the coast of Atlantic City, N.J., and Revolution Wind, a wind farm planned off the coast of Rhode Island and Connecticut.

In January, the Trump administration began the environmental review process for the 15-turbine South Fork Wind project off the coast of Long Island, N.Y.

Together, the wind farms are among 14 proposals that companies have submitted to BOEM.

The activity follows a political and environmental bottleneck during the final years of the Trump administration that irked wind developers and set the Vineyard project back more than a year.

For Martens, in New York, the advancement of the Empire project is welcome news from Washington that the perspective on offshore wind has shifted.

"This is another clear signal that the Biden administration is holding to their commitment to keep the process moving," he said.