The Burbo Bank wind farm in the UK. U.S. waters could look more like this in the coming years.
Photo: Getty

The Trump administration is out here with another offshore lease auction, but unlike a much-hyped August oil and gas auction that landed with a thud, this week’s offshore wind farm lease is roaring.

The auction concluded Friday after bids climbed to a record-setting $410 million for three tracts of ocean off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The new record shows that offshore wind continues to mature in the U.S.

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According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which is conducting the lease auction, the three sites could generate 4.1 gigawatts of power if fully developed, something that would take years to realize. That would be enough electricity to keep the lights on in roughly 1.5 million homes. The lease auction is expected to end on Friday and announcement of the winners should follow shortly thereafter, but it’s already a major success. The previous record-setting auction was a $42.5-million lease in 2016 that was won by Norway’s Statoil.

“The intense competition we’ve seen in this offshore wind lease auction is completely unprecedented,” Nancy Sopko, the director of offshore wind for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), told Earther in a statement. “With strong support from Secretary Zinke, Massachusetts and other states, global businesses now recognize the potential of America’s world-class offshore wind resources.”

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The interest on display this year shows that the U.S. offshore wind industry is taking a huge step forward in terms of scale and ambition as it tries to catchup to countries in Europe that got an earlier start. Earlier this year, Massachusetts and Rhode Island selected large-scale wind farm projects. New Jersey has committed to 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind development by 2030, in the wake of Massachusetts and New York announcing their own offshore wind ambitions. According to an analysis provided by AWEA, there were 14 proposed offshore wind projects at the end of last year. Together, those projects represent 12,500 megawatts of potential power of which 16 percent should come online in the next five years. Suffice to say, offshore wind is finally having a moment.

And frankly, it’s about time. Currently, there’s only one offshore wind farm in operation. The Block Island Wind Farm, also off the coast of Rhode Island, produces a piddly 30 megawatts of energy. It’s a great proof-of-concept and helped Block Island retire its diesel power plant, but it’s hardly a powerhouse.

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BOEM sits under the purview of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and is the same agency that was responsible for the August offshore oil and gas lease. That raised $178 million. Not exactly chump change, but it failed to live up to the hype of an administration that has pushed aggressively for more offshore drilling. Offshore wind, however, has proven to be a whole different beast.

Now, it’s not that Zinke has poo-pooed offshore wind. In fact, he compared it to the Bakken shale boom that unleashed fracked gas on the U.S., which is high praise particularly coming from this administration. But developing renewables has generally taken a backseat to fossil fuels as the Trump administration has bent over backwards to roll back regulations and chatted up energy dominance. With the success of this latest offshore auction, they might want to rethink their approach.

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