When the U.S. last auctioned big plots of ocean to companies that wanted to build offshore wind farms a few years ago, it raked in a then-record-setting haul of $405 million. That’s set to be obliterated tomorrow, when two dozen companies compete to bid on lease areas off the coasts of New York and New Jersey as the scramble to erect wind turbines all along the U.S. coast and decarbonize the nation’s electric grid heats up.
The auction's winners will secure the right to develop six lease areas in the New York Bight, a shallow stretch of the Atlantic Ocean between Long Island and New Jersey. They'll make money selling clean electricity from about 500 towering wind turbines to the big cities onshore and play a part in displacing the coal and natural gas-fired power plants that currently speed climate change.
Just as gold miners in centuries past charged to the best and most fertile pieces of land to claim a stake, wind farm developers are now rushing toward the windiest and most profitable tranches of ocean.
“These waters are hot,” said Timothy Fox, vice president of ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based energy research company. “We expect high bids, potentially the highest on record.”
While the Trump administration held only two lease sales for offshore wind areas in four years, President Joe Biden has said he wants enough offshore wind farms to power 10 million homes by 2030 and is planning six more auctions from California to the Carolinas. According to Martha Kammoun, a lawyer at the firm Bracewell, which advises offshore wind companies on lease auctions and development projects: “This is the beginning.”
Companies, such as European giants Orsted, EDF Renewables Development and Equinor have registered to bid, along with smaller U.S. firms such as Invenergy Wind Offshore, Arevia Power and Horizon Wind Power. The stakes are even higher since each company can win only one plot of ocean, under a new rule that could benefit U.S. wind developers that are accustomed to being shouldered aside by big European competitors.
The dominance of foreign players reflects where the offshore wind industry started. With the help of government subsidies and purchase mandates, major wind projects have been erected alongside Scotland, the Netherlands, and China. Those large international developers have helped advance wind technology and reduce costs — a benefit as the industry builds in the U.S. — and at the same time amassed big balance sheets that could give them an advantage over smaller U.S. firms vying for tracts in the Bight.
Experts say bids could top $3,000 an acre, which would put the total price tag for the almost 500,000 acres close to $1.5 billion. That would set the auction far above recent sales for oil and gas rights in the Gulf of Mexico, which have raked in a few hundred million dollars. Multi-billion-dollar oil and gas sales were more common in the 1980s and early 2000s, though, and the per-acre price for oil and gas areas is still well above even the higher estimates for tomorrow's auction.
Yet renewable companies bidding in this sale don't bear the same risk as oil drillers. Oil companies can drill wells that turn up empty, but renewable firms know the wind is there. They just have to harness it. And they can count on guaranteed demand for their electricity from states such as New York and New Jersey that have enacted laws mandating offshore wind purchases. "Eliminating the need to discover the resource provides a much different investment scenario for offshore wind," said Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association.
Not everyone is excited about the prospect of hundreds of new turbines, each almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower, being planted in the Atlantic. The Bight is home to some of the world's richest scallop beds, and commercial fishing associations have said the turbines would make it much harder to harvest the mollusks. Whale advocates and shipping companies have also questioned the sale, and a handful of lawsuits have been filed against the Interior Department's recent wind approvals.
There’s also another potential problem with a record-setting sale: power prices. Because developers will eventually be passing on the costs of building the wind farms to the homeowners and businesses that buy the electricity they generate, bidding wars and high prices for the tracts of ocean could eventually boost the price of that power.
There’s a common phrase in the utility sector: “Everybody loves to be first to be second.” It means that going first can be dangerous, as shown with the death of Cape Wind, which was supposed to be the first big offshore wind farm in the U.S. but was killed in 2017 by a coalition that included the Kennedy family and billionaire industrialist William Koch. Wind developers learned an important lesson: Don’t try to build wind farms that rich and powerful people would be able to see from their beach houses — and regulators adapted by moving plots farther away from the coast and out of the view of those shoreside residents.