By ELLEN KNICKMEYER AND RODRIQUE NGOWI
BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. (AP) — The winds are blowing fair for the U.S. wind-power industry, making it one of the fastest-growing sources of energy in this country.
Turbines are going up by the thousands throughout America, in places ranging from the remote Texas plains to farm towns in Iowa. And the U.S. wind boom now is expanding offshore; big corporations are planning to put $70 billion into the country’s first utility-scale offshore wind farms.
“We have been blessed to have it,” says Polly McMahon, a 13th-generation resident of Block Island, where a pioneering offshore wind farm replaced the island’s dirty and erratic diesel-fired power plant in 2016. “I hope other people are blessed too.”
But there’s a hitch. And it’s a big one. President Donald Trump hates wind turbines.
He’s called them “disgusting” and “ugly” and “stupid,” denouncing them in hundreds of anti-wind tweets and public comments dating back more than a decade, when he tried unsuccessfully to block a wind farm near a golf course he owns in Scottland.
And those turbine blades. “They say the noise causes cancer,” Trump told a Republican crowd last spring, in a claim immediately rejected by the American Cancer Society.
Now, wind-industry leaders and supporters fear that the federal government, under Trump, may be pulling back from what had been years of encouragement for wind power.
The Interior Department surprised and alarmed wind industry supporters in August, when the agency unexpectedly announced it was withholding approval for the country’s first utility-scale offshore wind project, a $2.8 billion assemblage of 84 giant turbines. Planned for construction 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard, Vineyard Wind was to start its operations in 2022. Its Danish-Spanish partners already have contracts to supply power to Massachusetts electric utilities.
Investors backing more than a dozen other big wind farms are lined up to follow Vineyard Wind with offshore wind projects of their own. Shell’s renewable-energy offshoot is among the businesses ponying up for federal leases, offering bids of more than $100 million, for offshore wind-farm sites.
The Interior Department cited this surge in corporate interest in saying it wanted to conduct more studies before moving forward. It directed Vineyard Wind to research the likely effects of the East Coast’s planned wind boom.
The Interior Department spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said offshore energy remains “an important component” in the Trump administration’s energy plans. But those plans also call for “ensuring activities are safe and environmentally responsible,” Goodwin said in a statement.
Wind power now provides a third or more of the electricity generated in some Southwest and Midwest states. And New York, New Jersey and other Eastern states already are joining Massachusetts in planning for wind-generated electricity.
Along with the U.S. shale oil boom, the rise in wind and solar is helping cushion oil-supply shocks from events such as the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities.
But the Interior Department’s pause on the Vineyard Wind project has chilled the ardor of many backers of the offshore wind boom. Critics contrast it with the Republican administration’s moves to open up offshore and Arctic areas to oil and gas development, despite strong environmental concerns.
“That I think is sort of a new bar,” for the federal government to require developers to assess the impact of not just their projects but everyone’s, said Stephanie McClellan, a researcher and director of the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind at the University of Delaware. “That worries everybody.”
Wind power and the public perception of it have changed since America’s first proposed big offshore wind project, Cape Wind off Cape Cod, died an agonizing 16-year death. Koch and Kennedy families alike, along with other coastal residents, reviled Cape Wind as a potential bird-killing eyesore marring their ocean views.
But technological advances since then mean wind turbines can so up much farther offshore, mostly out of sight, and produce energy more efficiently. Climate change — and the damage it will do these same coastal communities — also has many looking at wind differently now.
Federal fisheries officials have been among the main bloc calling for more study, saying they need to know more about the likely consequences for ocean life. Some fishing groups still fear their nets will get tangled in the massive turbines, although Vineyard Wind’s offer to pay millions of dollars to offset any harm to commercial fishing won the support of others. At least one Cape Cod town council also withheld support.
On land, the wind boom is already well established. By next year, 9% of the country’s electricity is expected to come from wind power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The wind industry already claims 114,000 jobs, more than twice the number of jobs remaining in U.S. coal mining, which is losing out in competition against cleaner, cheaper energy sources despite the Trump administration’s backing of coal.