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An offshore wind farm. Offshore wind farms have turbines up to 40 kilometres from the coast. Credit: WikiMedia

New England looks offshore to an equitable energy future

The Northeastern US states have a huge wind energy potential, but environmental justice advises moving ahead with caution
The Northeastern US states have a huge wind energy potential, but environmental justice advises moving ahead with caution

The East Coast of the United States is known for its twisting, rocky shoreline that stretches over 8,000 kilometers from the cold waters of Maine to the sandy beaches of Rhode Island. The sea air is salty and the shoreline is dotted with lobster and fishing boats, cold-water surfers. And, in some areas, turbines loom in the distance.

But the shoreline is more than just beautiful. It has tremendous energy potential as well– 20,000 megawatts of offshore wind potential for the New England region, to be exact. Enough energy to power up to 5.3 million homes. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that offshore wind could generate up to twice the amount of electricity that the entire country currently uses. 

The current climate goals in New England are ambitious, with some states aiming to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Electricity goals are even more aggressive, with states aiming to use 100% renewable sources by 2030.

The downside? The current plans favour natural gas and imported hydroelectric power from Canada. While on paper these energy sources would lower carbon emissions in New England, they have received a lot of criticism from regional environmentalists and activists. The dams where the hydroelectricity comes from are often on Indigenous lands, and many dams are generating environmental concerns. To bring this hydropower to New England, the current plans require building infrastructure through people’s backyards and through designated wilderness areas. 

But wind—something New England has in large supply—could be the missing puzzle piece, the energy source for a sustainable and equitable future.

Offshore energy, onshore woes

New England is a region composed of six states, and all but one of these, Vermont, have a coastline. Their coastlines, in combination with wind patterns, creates the perfect hub for offshore wind farms. 

David Zeek is a member  of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club’s Energy Committee. He says that New England, and the United States in general, haven’t capitalized on the offshore wind market as much as they should. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) suggests that offshore wind could actually be an opportunity to revitalize some areas and present an equitable option. 

“We pay a high price for electricity in New England compared to other regions of the United States,” Zeek says. Local wind energy would end up lowering electricity prices for New England towns and benefit coastal communities. Electricity generated from wind tends to be set at a fixed price and does not increase over time. This could provide an affordable option across the region. 

But alongside the benefits come challenges. “The main environmental justice issue arises onshore,” explains Zeek. “You have to connect somewhere.” 

While the offshore location is where the actual energy is generated, onshore is where the benefits are realized. There is infrastructure that needs to be built onshore, along with updates to the current grid.

An equitable solution? 

For an energy source to be equitable, it requires three components: decision-making must be inclusive, the projects must address a history of racial inequity, and communities have to share the burden and the benefit. 

Meghan Sahli-Wells is the former mayor of Culver City, California. During her time as a city councillor and then two-term mayor, she prioritized energy sources that hit her top priorities of community, jobs, and environmental justice. “The oil industry promotes this binary: we can have a healthy economy or healthy climate. I think that is completely untrue and we really need to fight that narrative.”

Most towns will receive a financial benefit if they host the onshore infrastructure, and Zeek believes they could bring tourism as well. According to the UCS, wind projects can generate 40-160 jobs per 100 megawatts of generating capacity, which could bring at least 4,000 green new jobs to New England. 

But those jobs need to be desirable. Sahli-Wells says the jobs need to be competitive with jobs in the oil industry, offering benefits, security, and safe working conditions. 

“One problem with the environmental movement is it can be like a luxury item. If you just buy a Prius, you’re an environmentalist. That’s fundamentally unjust, it should be accessible to all”, says Sahli-Wells, arguing the same concept applies to energy. 

Currently, New England has contracted for 10,000 megawatts of energy out of the potential 20,000. Zeek also believes that if New England states act as a unit, legislators and businesses can collaborate more easily, which means the region could hit its climate targets sooner. “We won’t be successful if we compete,” Zeek says.

Recent estimates show that 100% of the energy needed in New England could come from renewable sources, and wind could be a large part of the solution.

Rich opposition

Cape Wind was an offshore wind project that failed because of Not in My Backyard, or NIMBY, campaigns. The Cape is a historically affluent area of New England, and residents ultimately refused the project because the offshore turbines would limit beach views. 

Currently, 19 offshore wind projects are under contract in the United States, and most of the proposed areas for onshore infrastructure are in economically disadvantaged towns.

But New England, and the United States, still have a long way to go on the energy and equity front. Says Sahli-Wells,  “We don’t have a future without a just transition.”