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New 'Windfall' Podcast Series Examines Burgeoning U.S. Offshore Wind Industry

Massive wind turbines sit in the water off the coast of Block Island in Rhode Island. The water and sky are gray.
Rodrique Ngowi
/
Associated Press File
Shown here in 2019, Deepwater Wind's turbines stand in the water off Block Island, R.I. A Massachusetts law passed in March creates a net-zero greenhouse gas emission limit by 2050. The law also requires the creation of an additional 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind. Shown here: these turbines represent just one of just many new offshore wind projects anticipated off the coast of the United States in the coming years.

It's not too often that new billion-dollar industries come along. But the New Hampshire Public Radio Podcast Outside/In has launched a new series that highlights one example of that rare phenomenon. The series is called Windfall, and it investigates the birth of America's offshore wind industry.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Annie Ropeik, NHPR’s energy and environment reporter. Ropeik leads the station's climate reporting project, By Degrees, and co-hosts Windfall. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So set the table here: Just how big a deal, right now, is the offshore wind industry?

Annie Ropeik: So it's a big deal, in a lot of ways. Not so much in the U.S. — but that is beginning to change — but certainly in Europe.

We're talking physically huge, you know, in the sense of the size of the towers and blades; huge in the sense of the money that's going into it, the amount of investment, economic impact that could be created. And then just huge in the sense of transformative impact it could have on climate change.

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We're talking about huge amounts of renewable energy, on the scale of a nuclear power plant in a single wind farm [in terms of electricity generated], or a solar farm’s [worth of power] in the size of a single turbine. So this could really move the needle on climate change. And we are in a moment, now, where that transformation is actually ready to begin in the U.S.

"We're talking about huge amounts of renewable energy, on the scale of a nuclear power plant in a single wind farm [in terms of electricity generated], or a solar farm’s [worth of power] in the size of a single turbine."
Annie Ropeik, NHPR Energy & Environment reporter

There are five episodes in this podcast, and the first one goes into detail about how the offshore wind industry has been growing elsewhere in the world since the 1970s, producing megawatts or even gigawatts of energy. It's only now getting off the ground now in the U.S. Why has it taken so long to get traction here on wind energy?

The answer is pretty much politics, which probably is no surprise.

Offshore wind did really take off in Europe around 2010. That was when we saw that growth curve that had been ticking up since the '70s really skyrocket.

But listeners may remember that here in the US, in 2010, that was in the middle of the Cape Wind saga down in Massachusetts. We get into that in episode two. This was the project off Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts that drew opposition from everyone from Mitt Romney to the Kennedys — who lived there. And it was supported by just as wide a range of people. It was a huge political football at the time.

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And it really came about at a time when the U.S. did not have a regulatory process in place for offshore wind. We had just never done anything like this before. And we weren't ready to do anything like this, despite the fact that it was happening elsewhere in the world.

So, Cape Wind initially was trying to be permitted under an 1800s-era Army Corps of Engineers law, [which] changed during the Cape Wind process [and] ended up setting them back quite a bit.

And people may recall that project did ultimately fail, but the U.S. learned a lot in the process. It created a whole regulatory system to try to correct the mistakes of Cape Wind. And that is the system that we have now, that has only really just started to permit new wind farms in the past few years on the east coast.

"... the electrons from these wind farms in a place like Massachusetts will be used in Vermont, and Vermont can sort of hang its hat on those greenhouse gas emissions reductions as part of its climate goals."
Annie Ropeik, NHPR Energy & Environment reporter

Annie, using my astute journalistic powers of observation, I will draw your attention to the fact that Vermont does not have a sea coast. In fact, there are many people in the Northeast who are very far from any kind of sea coast. So why does coastal wind energy matter to them? Why should it?

It's a very important point. I mean, this is power that is going to serve the whole region, the whole country, and potentially [have] economic impacts that could serve places other than the coast, too.

So that's really what we want people to take away from this: is there's just so much huge transformative power, and ripple effects that come from an industry like this, that they won't just be felt in the places where the wind farms are going up; they could be felt in places like Vermont.

So a lot of the jobs, the money that I mentioned, the manufacturing impacts, once those arrive in the U.S. — which will be a while. Right now, you know, a lot of the parts for the early projects are coming from Europe, even the jobs. A lot of Americans aren't trained to do this kind of work yet, so it's gonna be a while — but eventually, you could see some of these supply chain jobs pop up in places like Vermont. Or, there's an example of a turbine parts manufacturing facility that's going to be in Albany, N.Y., you know, up-river.

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We could see jobs like office jobs, or tech support jobs, or even parts that can be moved over highways made in a place like Vermont. And I'll really be interested to see if Vermont — as it starts to see its coastal neighbors really getting into this industry and profiting off of it — I'll be interested to see if states like yours decide that they want to try to get a piece of the pie.

And the other reason that this should matter to a state like Vermont is that you will share in the energy that's produced. So New England has a regionalized power grid. All six states use energy from all of the power that's produced in Massachusetts, or in New Hampshire or in Vermont. That's all spread out over the six states.

And so, the electrons from these wind farms in a place like Massachusetts will be used in Vermont, and Vermont can sort of hang its hat on those greenhouse gas emissions reductions as part of its climate goals.

"... this is power that is going to serve the whole region, the whole country, and potentially [have] economic impacts that could serve places other than the coast, too."
Annie Ropeik, NHPR Energy & Environment reporter

Annie, the Windfall series it's airing as part of the larger, long-running Outside/In podcast and the series comes with a pretty big staffing change too, because longtime host Sam Evans Brown is leaving the show.

Why is this significant to Windfall as a series and what are the measures that NHPR is taking to be transparent about those changes?

Sam was the founding host of Outside/In, and there is no replacing him. He was a phenomenal journalist, but he's actually moved on to a job in clean energy advocacy. And we know that's going to raise questions for listeners. So we've taken great pains to separate Sam's new job from the show.

He did most of the writing and reporting for the series, but he did it all before his new job really came about, and we've made sure that those don't overlap, and [NHPR has] taken other steps to assure listeners that we understand the difference between journalism and advocacy, and that the goal of the show is not advocacy; it is journalism. It is to present to you a set of facts and context and arguments for and against and let you make up your own mind.

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So we've brought me in as a co-host and an editor on the series. There's a whole team of journalists who have helped to edit and hone this series, and get it across the finish line. And we hired an outside fact checker to go over all the details for the show.

So, you know, in the end, we just thought it was an important story. It deserves to be heard, and we hope that people will listen and decide what they think for themselves.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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