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Offshore wind, a potential clean energy source for the East Coast, slowly takes shape

A 1.5 MW wind turbine.
Reid R. Frazier
The Allegheny Front
A 1.5 MW wind turbine at Atlantic County Utility Authority's sewage treatment plant, in April, 2024.

A few miles from the boardwalk in Atlantic City is a small wind farm at the Atlantic County sewage treatment plant. The turbine blades seem to turn slowly in the wind. But looks can be deceiving.

“It’s (moving) right around 100, 120 miles an hour at the tip,” said Brandon Nehring, plant manager at the windfarm, to a tour of reporters attending the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference.

“It doesn’t look like it’s going very fast, but it’s going pretty quick.”

When these five windmills were installed in 2005, they were considered advanced wind technology, according to Nehring. But now they have been eclipsed.

“This is a very old wind turbine,” Nehring said.

This small wind farm produces eight megawatts – enough to power roughly 4,000 homes. But much bigger wind power is coming to the Jersey Shore.

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The coming generation of East Coast offshore wind

The Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind Farm, planned in the waters offshore here, will generate enough electricity to power 700,000 homes someday, according to its planners. The project is a joint venture between Shell and EDF Renewables.

On the tour, Doug Copeland, development manager with Atlantic Shores, said his project’s windmills, which will be built in the water 10 to 20 miles offshore – would dwarf the 380-foot-tall windmills in Atlantic City.

“Ours will cap out around 1,000 feet,” he said. In other words, they will be as tall as the length of three football fields. These huge windmills will sit on what’s called a monopile, which Copeland described as a huge steel tube sunk into the seabed.

“It basically looks like a very big steel straw,” he said.

The boats needed to carry the parts for these windmills out to sea are so big they can’t even fit beneath bridges. So the state of New Jersey is building a special port near the ocean just for the offshore wind industry.

A sort of ‘garage’ for gigantic wind turbine parts

The New Jersey Wind Port is beginning to take shape in the marshlands off Delaware Bay, about an hour south of Philadelphia.

Right now, it looks like a huge gravel parking lot, built right next to a nuclear power plant. Once built, the wind port will have spaces for manufacturing and storing blades and other components.

The site will be big enough for companies in this industry to transport the blades, towers, and other parts needed for a wind farm, construction manager William Dixon told the tour. And these parts are big.

“The components for offshore wind are so large they can’t go over the road or by rail,” Dixon said.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which owns the port, is spending $600 million to build it.

Dan Fatton, who manages the development authority’s offshore wind program, said companies that use the port to build projects off the coast of New Jersey and surrounding states will pay rent. At full operation, the port is expected to employ 1,500 people. Fatton thinks it will be a catalyst for the industry.

“This is, I think, a national treasure when we think about creating offshore wind projects off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.

The politics of this clean energy development

Offshore wind, which makes electricity without emitting carbon dioxide, is a key plank of President Biden’s plan to lower carbon emissions.

The climate argument for offshore wind is pretty straightforward, according to Kris Ohleth, director of the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind, a non-profit funded by philanthropies.

The East Coast, home to roughly one-third of the U.S. population, is power hungry, and the mid-Atlantic grid that includes Pennsylvania and several midwestern states is currently dominated by fossil fuels, the main cause of climate change.

“Except for offshore wind,” Oleth said. “There are … really no other renewable energy opportunities for the Mid-Atlantic or the Northeast, because we don’t have a good profile for solar, and we don’t have enough land for solar or land-based wind.”

But building the industry up won’t be easy. Several big projects have recently been canceled because of high interest rates, inflation and supply chain problems.

There has been a wave of misinformation associating offshore wind with whale deaths, some of which has been spread by groups linked to the fossil fuel industry. These reports have been debunked by scientists.

But there are also concerns about how offshore wind will impact the fishing industry and tourism.

A recent study projected that some Mid-Atlantic fisheries could see revenue losses from offshore wind, at least in the short- to medium-term.

The net effect is approval for offshore wind is down, especially for Republicans.

While President Biden is a wind supporter, former President Trump, his likely opponent in November, is against it. Despite all this, Ohleth sees immense possibilities for offshore wind.

“From a technical perspective, we can power the entire country, the entire East Coast, the entire nation with offshore wind power,” Ohleth said. “There’s enough energy above the ocean with wind to do that. There’s questions of what’s economically feasible, etc., but it’s absolutely possible to do.”

Atlantic Shores could install its first wind project by the end of the decade, with more projects slated to go in by 2032. But all of these offshore wind projects will take a while to build because of the lengthy permitting and construction times, Fatton said.

“We’re talking about a timeline that’s generally around 10 to 15 years from start to finish,” Fatton said. “In terms of actually having power into our grid, we’re still a few years away from that.”

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.

Reid R. Frazier covers energy for The Allegheny Front. His work has taken him as far away as Texas and Louisiana to report on the petrochemical industry and as close to home as Greene County, Pennsylvania to cover the shale gas boom. His award-winning work has also aired on NPR, Marketplace and other outlets. Reid is currently contributing to StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY covering the Commonwealth's energy economy. Email: