Right now, in 2010, the United States has the same number of offshore wind farms as Mali.
Mali is a much poorer country, but its primary obstacle to developing offshore wind power is not a problem of money or technology. Mali’s main problem when it comes to offshore wind is that it’s landlocked.
America has no such excuse. It stretches, famously, from “sea to shining sea.” The United States has 12,383 miles of coastline. And yet, in 2010, 41 years after putting humans on the moon and 74 years after building the Hoover Dam, we don’t have a single offshore wind farm. None. Zero.
That’s just embarrassing.
We have the technology to do this. As we’ve just seen graphically demonstrated, this is far easier, technologically, than deepwater oil drilling. And it’s much, much less risky. And we’ve got a pretty good idea where offshore wind farms ought to be — i.e., places with a lot of wind and few migrating birds. We even have several capable companies lining up for a chance to make this happen.
And yet here we are, in 2010, without a single offshore wind farm. That’s a decent snapshot of the short-sightedness, lack of ambition and lack of vision that has come to characterize 21st-century America.
Wind power is reliable, renewable and clean. Wind power also strongly recommends itself to the reality-based community for its lack of greenhouse gas emissions. (That’s immensely important — even if every attempt to confront the problem of climate change politically is likely futile due to a vocal third of Americans believing that scientists are making the whole thing up to pave the way for Nicolae Carpathia’s One World Government.)
And right now, we have 14.6 million Americans who need jobs. Going from the current situation of zero offshore wind farms to, say, eight over the next five years would create tens of thousands of jobs at least. Maybe hundreds of thousands.
For a sense of just how many jobs could be created directly and indirectly by such an undertaking, look at the numbers the offshore oil drilling industry says are affected by the post-Deepwater-Horizon-debacle moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Now imagine creating that many good jobs in every coastal state and doing so without the trade-off of tar balls on the beaches and decimated fisheries.
The Gulf spill ought to have generated more new support for cleaner energy. If nothing else it provided a much clearer recognition of the worst-case scenarios arising from drill, baby, drill. That sort of calamity isn’t a danger with offshore wind farms. A collapsed turbine won’t result in plumes of wind polluting the open seas or sticky wind residue threatening the fishing and tourism industries.
The reason I’m suggesting a goal of eight offshore wind farms within the next five years is because that’s how many Denmark has right now. If Denmark had beaten us into space, America would have scrambled into crisis mode. If Denmark’s military had this kind of technological advantage we’d be in a full-on panic to re-establish our supremacy. So there’s no reason we shouldn’t also be racing to catch up when it comes to offshore wind power. We’re talking about energy and the technology of the future — things red-blooded Americans are supposed to be boisterously proud of being No. 1 at.
Yet we seem to have lost that swagger when it comes to offshore wind, complacently accepting our last-place tie with Mali. This is too important to accept failure. We can’t just pretend it doesn’t matter because we’re not as good at it as other countries are (you know, like we do with soccer).
Keeping pace with Denmark actually would require more than eight offshore wind farms. We’ve got about three times more miles of coastline than Denmark. Three times eight is, conveniently, 24 — which also happens to be the number of coastal American states. Going from zero to eight is probably a sufficiently ambitious goal for the first five years, but if we want to reclaim our swagger, we’re going to need to shoot for 24 in, say, the next 20 years.
Achieving this goal would require some new approaches from the federal government. (That shouldn’t be surprising considering that the current approach is what has thus far produced, again, zero offshore wind farms.) Whatever we call the agency that replaces the dysfunctional Minerals
Management Service will need to adopt a bit more urgency for evaluating proposals and approving and expediting worthy ones. Ditto for the Environmental Protection Agency.
But achieving the goal of eight new offshore wind farms in the next five years would not likely require the federal government to commit to massive new spending. These projects will be built and paid for mostly by the private sector (with some public help, probably, but less than is involved in your typical football stadium).
What the federal government needs to do to help make this happen is to commit to buying some of the electricity generated by these plants. This is the step that Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and Maryland Gov. Tommy Carcetti Martin O’Malley requested and urged in a letter last month to President Barack Obama:
Markell and O’Malley asked Obama to direct the Department of Defense, the General Services Administration and other federal agencies to commit to buying a gigawatt of offshore wind energy from the mid-Atlantic region. The electricity would help power federal offices and military installations, especially those around metropolitan Washington, they wrote.
A gigawatt represents 1,000 megawatts, enough to power the equivalent of about 300,000 homes. That much energy would require about three times the number of turbines for which NRG Bluewater has contracts today for its wind farm planned for 11 miles east of Rehoboth Beach.
The governors said developing that much wind energy could lead to the creation of up to 20,000 jobs.
If we trust the governors’ number there — one wind farm = 20,000 jobs — then it seems my Grand Scheme here isn’t actually all that ambitious. Eight wind farms in five years would only provide 160,000 jobs, and we’ve got 14.6 million Americans looking for work. So, no, offshore wind
farms are not The Solution to unemployment, but they could be part of the solution.
We need these 160,000 jobs, after all. And we need cleaner, renewable energy.
And maybe more than either of those, we need to shake off the can’t-do attitude being preached these days by the smaller-smaller-smaller crowd advocating austerity in budgets, austerity in living standards, austerity in aspirations and austerity in achievements. America can’t do things like that anymore, they say. Too expensive. Too difficult. Too big. We pulled off the Apollo missions using less computing power than your typical cell phone has, but that was back in the old America. The old America was able to do things like space programs and rural electrification and fully-funded schools and the interstate highway system. The new, smaller-smaller-smaller America, they say, mustn’t attempt anything quite so ambitious.
Those folks may be perfectly satisfied with a tie for last place, but I think America can do better than that.