The Intertubes are practically on fire with news that the Biden administration is putting up $3 billion in funding for a new offshore wind initiative that will plant 30 gigawatts’ worth of new wind turbines along the US coastline by 2030. In a karmic twist, those dollars will come through the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office, which certain members of Congress have been trying to kill ever since the Solyndra debacle from way back in the early days of the Obama administration. Well, Solyndra may be gone, but its ghost lives on.

Setting The Stage For 30 Gigawatts Of Offshore Wind Power By 2030

Actually, certain members of Congress were all for the Loan Programs Office when it launched under the Energy Department umbrella during the Bush administration, as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. As a source-agnostic program, the office also covered nuclear and fossil energy projects. However, after the Obama administration kicked off in 2009 with a climate action goal, they mysteriously soured on the whole idea.

The LPO was (and is) on a mission to provide funding to companies with new energy-related technology that has the potential to fulfill critical needs, but are unable to attract sufficient private sector interest. Among the first to receive funding was the solar manufacturer Solyndra, which got off to a promising start in 2009 with a $535 million LPO loan, except that it crashed into bankruptcy in 2011.

That sounds pretty bad, and it was, but Solyndra was just one cog in the LPO wheel, which was designed to accommodate a measure of risk. The LPO portfolio was in the black by 2014 and by 2016 it was outperforming banks. That didn’t stop clean energy foes from leveraging the Solyndra bankruptcy to raise relentless howls of outrage, which echo to this day.

President Trump reportedly tried to kill off the loan program, only he couldn’t, seeing as how it was established through an Act of Congress.

Curiously, Trump also allowed the Energy Department to establish the new US Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium, which launched in 2018 with the aim of pushing the nation’s wind industry into high gear. That may seem off message for someone whose great love of birds inclined him to throw shade at the wind industry, but it is consistent with the whole thrust of the Energy Department throughout the Trump administration.

So now, the Loan Programs Office is still alive and kicking with $3 billion in loans for offshore wind projects, and it has a new best friend in the Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium, which is kicking in another $8 million for new offshore wind R&D projects.

The National Offshore Wind R&D Consortium packs a big punch. It is helmed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and counts Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Maine among its member states along with an A-list list of offshore wind industry stakeholders.

$8 Million For New Offshore Wind R&D Projects

Much ink has already been spilled on Solyndra and the LPO, so let’s move on to that new $8 million round of Offshore Wind Consortium funding to support the 30 gigawatt goal.

The figure of $8 million may sound like peanuts, and it is, compared to $3 billion. However, a little goes a long way in the world of offshore wind R&D. Those dollars will support the $3 billion loan program by developing new technologies for foundations and moorings, building up the domestic supply chain, innovating on electrical systems, and coming up with solutions for reducing impacts on wildlife and radar systems.

Here’s the Offshore Wind Consortium rundown:

  • 4 projects to develop innovative support structures (including foundations and moorings) for very large fixed-bottom and floating offshore wind turbines to achieve economies of scale
  • 3 projects that propose innovative solutions to supply chain and installation challenges including spiral welded towers, a self-positioning blade installation tool, and unmanned aerial devices for inspections
  • 5 projects to support innovations in grid interconnection and transmission
  • 3 technology development projects to mitigate use conflicts, including wildlife monitoring and radar interference.

Among the awardees are quite a few offshore wind companies new to the CleanTechnica radar, including Esteyco, DEME Offshore US LLC, Deep Research Technology, PCCI, Inc., Keystone Tower Systems, ULC Robotics, Thayer Mahan, Offshore Wind Consultants, Worely, and CODAR Ocean Systems, LLC.

One familiar face is GE, which is no surprise considering the popularity of the company’s gigantic new wind turbine for offshore arrays. The behemoth originally weighed in at 12 megawatts when it debuted in 2019, and last year GE gave it a few extra tweaks to pump it up to 13 megawatts.

The Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is also in the mix, tasked with something called “An Offshore Wind Energy Development Strategy to Maximize Electrical System Benefits in Southern Oregon and Northern California,” which probably has something to do with ongoing PNNL research that involves minimizing the cost of offshore wind by deploying the existing network of onshore transmission lines.

Rounding out the awardees are Tufts University, which will also take on the transmission angle, and Cornell University, which will focus on resolving wildlife conflicts in designated offshore wind energy areas.

All in all, the new $8 million round of funding brings the Consortium’s portfolio up to 40 R&D projects, totaling $28 million in funding.

Don’t Forget The Critical Materials!

The Energy Department also engineered another angle during the Trump administration that sets up the 30 gigawatt goal for success.

On December 1, mere weeks after Trump lost the 2020 election, LPO came through with new guidance for loan applicants aimed at boosting the nation’s supply of critical materials used in wind turbines, batteries and other clean tech.

On the very day that Trump left office (January 20, 2021 for those of you keeping score at home), the Energy Department also followed up with a new $50 million round of funding for 15 projects aimed at “field validation and demonstration, as well as next-generation extraction, separation, and processing technologies, for critical materials.”

The Energy Department announcement was dripping with don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way out irony, which is kind of funny but also kind of sad considering the former President’s love-hate relationship with wind turbines. “Critical materials are used in many products important to the American economy and energy technologies, such as rare-earth elements used to manufacture high-strength magnets for offshore wind-turbine generators,” the agency emphasized.

“The Department of Energy is leading the way in addressing supply risks of critical materials,” added the outgoing Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Daniel R Simmons., for good measure.

Onward & Upward For Offshore Wind

The focus on critical materials comes into sharper focus when you consider the upswing in demand sparked by the new 30 gigawatt goal, which is actually just a first step along a deep decarbonization goal topping 100 gigawatts by 2050.

Under the stewardship of newly minted Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm, the Energy Department has picked up where the Trump administration left off. On March 18, the agency announced a new $30 million round of critical materials funding zeroing in on lithium, cobalt, and nickel, among others.

“Currently, the U.S. is grappling with chronic shortages in the domestic supply of these critical materials, forcing the country to rely on imported materials,” the agency explained, adding that “Roughly 35 rare-earth elements, such as platinum, serve as key components to several clean-energy and high-tech applications—magnets in wind turbines, batteries in electric and conventional vehicles, phosphors in energy-efficient lighting and displays, and catalysts for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

“At present, the U.S. relies on imports from nations such as China and the Democratic Republic of Congo for these critical materials. Imports account for 100% of our supply of 14 of the 35 elements, and over 50% of 17 others. This leaves clean energy technology production at greater risk of disruption due to trade disputes, natural disasters, or armed conflicts,” the Energy Department emphasized.

They left cargo ships stuck in the Suez Canal off the list of supply chain risks, but who’s counting. The US offshore wind industry has been drifting in the doldrums while other nations race ahead, but now that all hands are on deck it looks like clear sailing and sunny skies are in the forecast.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image (cropped): Offshore wind turbines courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (credit: Shannon Colson, PNNL).



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