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NEW ORLEANS —As part of a push toward a green energy future for America, the Biden administration has unveiled plans to develop the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico's first offshore wind farms. Though still in their infancy, the initiatives could one day generate enough electricity to power more than 3 million homes, according to federal projections.
"Of course it's something we're excited about," Jason Ryan, senior media relations manager at American Clean Power, told VOA. "The leasing plan shows the energy transition needs to take place and it needs to take place rapidly."
Turbocharging a domestic offshore wind energy sector has become a central component of President Joe Biden's strategy to fight climate change. Unlike burning oil, natural gas or coal, wind-generated electricity produces zero carbon emissions.
But the United States still has a long way to go. While land-based wind energy production has grown rapidly in recent years, offshore wind farms remain a rarity. Only two small wind farms are operational - on the country's Atlantic Coast in Rhode Island and Virginia. A larger farm was approved for Massachusetts last year and several "wind energy areas" are in various stages of consideration along America's West Coast.
Supporters of the administration's announcement hope developing wind energy infrastructure on parts of the proposed 283,000-hectare area in the Gulf will provide a much-needed boost to the industry while serving America's growing energy needs. According to a 2020 study by the National Renewable Energy Lab, wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico could generate as much as 508 gigawatts of electricity a year, which is twice what U.S. Gulf states consume.
Others, meanwhile, strike a cautionary note.
"There are definite pros to the Biden administration's announcement, especially since meaningful federal government investment is accompanying it," said Eric Smith, associate director of Tulane University's Energy Institute in New Orleans, "but there are cons, as well. I don't think the public largely understands the embedded limitations of renewable energy."
Boosting energy independence
Since the oil crisis of the 1970s, the United States has been on a quest to achieve energy independence by attempting to shrink its reliance on foreign energy sources.
This goal has proved difficult at times, a fact underscored most recently when Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and resulting international sanctions on Moscow roiled global fossil fuel markets. Dramatically higher gasoline prices that only recently have begun to recede prompted outcries from U.S. consumers.
"I would speculate that's partly where we're seeing this urge from the Biden administration," Smith told VOA. "It likely has its roots in our insecurity about reliable energy supplies from international sources."
And if the United States is looking to increase its domestic energy capacity, the Gulf of Mexico has risen to the challenge before, albeit with fossil fuels.
"The Gulf of Mexico has provided up to 15-17% of the nation's domestic oil and gas production so there's extensive infrastructure in place with well-developed ports and a skilled workforce," said Ryan of American Clean Power.
That expertise has been tapped for projects reaching across the country. Several Louisiana companies involved in offshore drilling were hired to help build the nation's first offshore wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island. Similarly, New Orleans, Louisiana, is home to America's first private testing facility for new offshore wind turbine blade technology.
"These opportunities will only continue," Ryan said, "and they'll be significant as wind energy gets started and we build out our domestic supply chain."
Pros and cons
One site being explored for a wind farm is 40 kilometers off the coast of Galveston, Texas. The other lies 90 kilometers off the coast of Lake Charles, Louisiana.
The sites are appealing because the Gulf of Mexico is known for having smaller waves and shallower waters than both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, making building the newly proposed projects potentially less costly.
Of course, the Gulf of Mexico brings challenges, as well. Recent hurricanes have passed over the very waters where the proposed wind farms would be located. A record 2020 hurricane season, for example, produced five named storms that struck Louisiana. Hurricanes Laura and Delta devastated the state's Lake Charles area.
It's not only the potential for storms that worries some experts. Comparative costs are also a factor.
"In Rhode Island, for example, the cost of energy from natural gas is high, and that makes wind energy appealing," said Smith from Tulane University. "In Louisiana, the economics are different. We can produce energy from natural gas at one-fourth what it would cost us to produce energy from wind."
Smith added, "The Rhode Island market pays 25-30 cents per kilowatt for wind energy, while Louisiana and Texas can produce a kilowatt of energy from gas for just 6 cents."
Prioritizing the environment
While advocates of renewable energy point to coming technological advances that will lower costs, financial considerations are among several factors the Biden administration is weighing. By reentering the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021, the U.S. has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% by 2030. Expanding the production and use of renewable energy is central to meeting that goal.
Environmental activists along the Gulf Coast, and across the country, want America to honor the commitment.
"We think these wind farms are a very good development," Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf, told VOA. "It provides clean energy, and it does it without the risk of spills or the same level of pollution associated with offshore oil and gas development."
But Sarthou points out, as with any form of development, particularly energy production, there are risks to a fragile ecosystem that must be considered.
"The turbines can adversely impact sea birds and migratory birds, noise during construction can be harmful to dolphins and whales, and building new infrastructure has the potential to destroy marine habitats," she said. "This all needs to be considered so we reduce impacts."
New energy development projects in the Gulf of Mexico invariably affect the region's renowned seafood industry. This past week, the federal government sent representatives from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to meet with local shrimpers.
Members of the Louisiana Shrimp Task Force expressed concerns that building wind farms in the Gulf could destroy productive shrimping areas and further damage a local industry already punished by environmental disasters and foreign competition.
Task force member Rodney Olander said he and other shrimpers emerged from the meeting satisfied with what they heard from federal officials.
"If they would have come in here and said they're building windmills on top of this productive shrimping area, we would have had a lot to say about that," Olander said, "but instead it seems like they're really listening to everyone. They're looking at where we shrimp and are staying clear of that, they're looking at where birds migrate and staying clear of that, they're looking at where the Coast Guard wants to keep open and they're staying clear of that - they're balancing a lot."
Not putting eggs in one basket
Smith said even as progress is being made, it's important to remain realistic about the limits of renewable energies like wind power.
"Data shows the wind isn't blowing approximately 55% of the time, and the sun isn't shining 75% of the time," he told VOA. "Once events like ice storms in West Texas or droughts in California put stress on our energy systems, we see we can't yet maintain a system that is 40-to-50% renewable energy. That's why California is currently investing in new gas power infrastructure and reversing decisions to shut down their last nuclear plant - renewables are still too unreliable for our energy needs."
Olander said, as a lifelong Louisianian, he would prefer not to see the oil industry disappear. He feels a loyalty to an industry he says has provided so many jobs in the region over the years.
"Oil has been such a big part of Louisiana and Texas for decades," he said, "and people like to pretend wind and solar energy are going to completely replace oil. I don't see that happening, and - to be honest with you - I hope it doesn't happen."
Still, he acknowledged, he's heard more and more about renewable energy over the years. He's trying to keep an open mind to giving the growing technology a foothold in the local economy.
"Having some wind energy to go with our oil and gas is worth trying," he said. "They say not to put all your eggs in one basket, right?"