In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Jeremy Firestone, the director of the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware and an expert on public attitudes toward wind power development. With the Biden administration aiming to boost renewable energy, Firestone explores why cost and technological development are no longer barriers to the expansion of offshore wind. And while local resistance to some offshore wind proposals has recently garnered attention, Firestone reflects on key findings from his own research, contending that communities—especially those with visions of a clean energy future—are generally supportive of offshore wind.
Listen to the Podcast
- Expanding offshore wind energy: “The price until recently was quite large, but now we’ve fallen down to as low as $58 for a megawatt-hour. I would say the Trump administration was not particularly bullish: they moved things forward, but they didn’t do so in an aggressive way. Ultimately, the barriers are not really technological. They’re not economic anymore. They’re social and cultural. And those are difficult, as we seek to transform the offshore environment off the East Coast.” (5:54)
- Why communities might support, or oppose, offshore wind: “The public is supportive and, in some communities, quite supportive. In some states, you might see 80 to 90 percent support … So, I would say, certainly a strong motivator of support is a vision of a clean energy future, and that resonates pretty much across the board. A lot of people in the literature disabuse the notion that [opponents of offshore wind] are NIMBYs—that this is just about a project being in their backyard. Really, it’s more about the impact of industrialization on places. People have attachments to places. They have identities that are associated with places.” (13:48)
- Offshore wind turbines can actually boost recreation: “[My coauthors and I] undertook a systematic internet survey and surveyed marinas, boat launches, angling locations, and beaches off the coast of New Hampshire. Overall, we found that offshore wind would have a positive impact if you look at the mean experience on coastal recreational experience. There was more enhancement than disruption.” (19:29)
Top of the Stack
- “Uncharted waters: Exploring coastal recreation impacts, coping behaviors, and attitudes towards offshore wind energy development in the United States” by Michael D. Ferguson, Darrick Evensen, Lauren A. Ferguson, David Bidwell, Jeremy Firestone, Tasha L. Dooley, and Clayton R. Mitchell
- “Wind energy: A human challenge” by Jeremy Firestone
- “Expert elicitation survey predicts 37% to 49% declines in wind energy costs by 2050” by Ryan Wiser, Joseph Rand, Joachim Seel, Philipp Beiter, Erin Baker, Eric Lantz, and Patrick Gilman
- “The Economic Costs of NIMBYism: Evidence from Renewable Energy Projects” by Stephen Jarvis
- “Carbon policy and the emissions implications of electric vehicles” by Kenneth Gillingham, Marten Ovaere, and Stephanie M. Weber
- Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug by Augustine Sedgewick
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. Today I'm talking with Jeremy Firestone, professor and director of the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware. Dr. Firestone is a wind energy specialist and for many years has looked at attitudes and economic preferences related to wind power development. I'm very pleased to welcome Jeremy on the program today to talk about offshore wind development in particular, something that he has looked at in depth. He and several co-authors have new research out this month in the journal Energy Research & Social Science about the intersection of offshore wind development and coastal recreation. We'll talk a bit about that study, but we’ll also talk more broadly about the opportunities and challenges associated with increasing offshore wind development in the United States. Stay with us.
Good morning, Jeremy. It's a pleasure to have you here as a guest on Resources Radio.
Jeremy Firestone: It's a pleasure to be here.
Kristin Hayes: Great. So I first became aware of your work at a conference on energy impacts that was held several years ago. And it's really nice to have a chance to talk more about what you've been up to since then, but I wondered if you could tell our listeners a little bit more, first, about your background and maybe just share a bit of how you came to focus on wind energy in particular.
Jeremy Firestone: Well, I would say it goes back to high school. I was a suburban boy but found my way to backpacking in the Tetons, the Grand Canyon, the White Mountains, and that eventually led me to work on some environmental ballot initiatives in California, which in turn led me to law school and then the Environmental Protection Agency in the state of Michigan as a government lawyer where I first worked on energy issues and hydropower. I wanted to consider these issues from a different perspective, and so I went back to school to study public policy analysis. I actually did a summer internship at Resources for the Future where I was given freedom to pursue various topics and ultimately worked on environmental enforcement choice with Jim Boyd and Ray Kopp, which in turn led to my dissertation. So this is payback today.
Kristin Hayes: Full circle. I love it.
Jeremy Firestone: Yeah. So I've been concerned about human health and climate impacts of fossil fuels. And in 2003, I started working on offshore wind research, the Cape Wind offshore wind project interested me as there were people, both pro and con, who professed to be environmentalists.
Kristin Hayes: Great. Well, my sense is that offshore wind development in particular is sort of having a moment if you will. And as a quick intro, I'd just like to remind our listeners of the March 29th announcement that came from the Biden administration related to offshore wind, and the header on the administration's press release reads “Interior, Energy, Commerce, and Transportation Departments Announce New Leasing, Funding and Development goals to Accelerate and Deploy Offshore Wind Energy and Jobs.” Sorry, that was kind of a long headline, but I think that illustrates that there is some momentum behind expansion of offshore wind as an energy source. I guess I want to start with a stage setting question: how much offshore wind is currently deployed in the United States and where is it?
Jeremy Firestone: So there is a total of 42 megawatts—most people maybe don't know what a megawatt is, but they know what a kilowatt is from their light bulb—so it's a thousand kilowatts. There are 30 megawatts off the coast of Rhode Island, more specifically off the coast of Block Island and 12 megawatts off the coast of Virginia, which just recently went in. The Block Island offshore wind project went in late 2016. There are, however, 29 gigawatts (so that's a thousand megawatts) planned in the Mid-Atlantic in New England by 2035. And as you've noted, the Biden administration recently announced a target nationwide of 30 gigawatts by 2030.
Kristin Hayes: Okay, so poised for growth, I guess I'd characterize it. And it sounds like offshore wind is in fact considered a promising resource, given that the United States has lots of coastline, although I'd love to discuss your views on where the United States fits in terms of its relative productivity in offshore wind. But maybe let's say, for the sake of argument, that yes, it's a great place to have offshore wind development. Why don't we already have more offshore wind than we do? Why is it a relatively recent energy source in the scheme of things?
Jeremy Firestone: Well, we have a pretty complex regulatory regime. As you noted from the header of the press release there are a lot of federal players, there are state players, and there are Indian nations that also have interests, along with coastal communities and other users of the marine environment like commercial fishers and marine transportation. When it was beginning, we ran into a situation with very cheap natural gas prices which put quite a large price premium on it, because, at that time, offshore wind was quite expensive.
We don't have a price on carbon. I guess we have a small one with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but we don't really have a national price like they do in the European Union. We really haven't had any sort of long-term tax incentives. Offshore wind has a really long planning horizon, and so the tax incentives have to match the planning horizon. The price until recently was quite large, but now we’ve fallen down to as low as $58 for a megawatt-hour. I would say the Trump administration was not particularly bullish: they moved things forward, but they didn’t do so in an aggressive way. Ultimately, the barriers are not really technological. They’re not economic anymore. They’re social and cultural. And those are difficult, as we seek to transform the offshore environment off the East Coast.
Kristin Hayes: Just two quick follow-up questions. So we really have talked about the East Coast. Is there any possibility for the West Coast? Are there any viable areas where the West Coast might be productive?
Jeremy Firestone: There are. The continental shelf on the East Coast is gently sloping, but off the Pacific it drops off quite quickly, so you're going to use what are known as floating foundations, instead of something that's planted into the sea floor. Those are more expensive and more novel so that is resulting in some delay. There are potentially a fair number of conflicts with the Department of Defense (DOD), and those need to be worked out as well, but there's definitely interest off of California, some off of Oregon and Washington, and as well off of Hawaii. There's a couple of areas that have potential for development. I think we will see those, but they're several years behind what's happening on the East Coast.
Kristin Hayes: Gotcha. And you mentioned that $58 a megawatt-hour. I wonder if you have any context of where that fits compared to other energy sources, and particularly other clean energy sources that have really come down in cost. For example, I recognize that it's probably different in different geographies, but can you put that in context with anything else that people might be familiar with like onshore wind, solar, anything like that?
Jeremy Firestone: Well, I mean, in the best locations for onshore wind or solar, you're talking perhaps 20 to 30 dollars a megawatt-hour, but all solutions ultimately are local. We don't have such strong land-based wind along the east coast. And although it's sunny out today, we're not nearly as sunny as the desert Southwest. So we have to come up with local solutions, and our largest resource is offshore wind. It's a little difficult to compare to fossil fuel generation because the offshore wind developers are signing 20 year contracts for a fixed price. Whereas we don't know what the future prices are going to be on fossil fuels, whether there's going to be a large carbon adder. The difference with renewables like wind and solar is that you pay a lot in capital costs and then not too much in operation costs because the fuel is free, whereas with coal and natural gas, the upfront costs are not that large, but then you get a long horizon of fuel costs.
Kristin Hayes: Right. Great. This is very helpful. I really appreciate this context here. Just one other kind of contextual question. And then I want to dive more specifically into your latest research and your historical research, but you and I have both referenced the number of players involved in siting offshore wind. The press release mentioned the Interior Department, the Energy Department, Commerce, Transportation, and you mentioned of course, tribal leadership, and even the Department of Defense. So given that complicated ecosystem, what actually is the process? How would you summarize the process of getting an offshore wind facility sited in the United States at the moment? What's the length of time, what are we talking about here?
Jeremy Firestone: We're probably talking 8–10 years. So it's a pretty long time horizon. The offshore environment is different than the land-based one. So if we compare the great land management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, while there are some other players in those environments, they really have management over the lands. In the ocean, we've got a whole bunch of different players. We don't have an ocean management agency. We have a Department of Interior with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, managing energy. We've got the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) managing fisheries and on and on. So the process once you're in federal waters—which is generally beyond three nautical miles, about three and a half miles, if you were driving on land—you would go through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM; they're the lead federal agency. And they will then coordinate with all these other federal agencies.
But they all have interests. The Fish and Wildlife Service is going to be focused on birds, along with endangered species on the East Coast. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of NOAA, is going to be focused on not only commercial fishing but the Great whales, and here in Delaware, the bottlenose dolphin, as well as some endangered species. As we talked about with DOD, those issues become more prevalent when you get down to Virginia and North Carolina on the East Coast. Then, the US Coast Guard is in Homeland Security, so they're a player as well. So it's quite complicated.
The process for BOEM is four stages. There's a sort of planning stage where they're trying to figure out where to locate leasing areas. There's the actual leasing, and they go through an auction process. The winner of the auction then engages in site assessment, the longest process the National Environmental Policy Act would be involved in. So that can take a number of years, and then construction will probably take two seasons for these large projects.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, that's a good illustration of the layers of complexity here, but as you noted at the beginning, obviously that's a lengthy process. There are many players involved, but costs have come down, and there is a process. So some of the barriers to actually getting more offshore wind deployment are not about the process, and they're not about the costs, they're about perception and community relations and a lot of the issues that you've really focused on in your research. So I'm hoping that we can pivot to that and talk about perceptions of offshore wind development. And I guess maybe I'll start by asking: is it possible to characterize overall perception of offshore wind in any meaningful way? As in, could you say that the public gives it a general thumbs up or thumbs down? I'm guessing that's probably tricky to paint such a broad picture. So maybe I should ask the question this way: what factors go into the perceptions of wind energy and how do they differ in various locales?
Jeremy Firestone: Okay, well, just on a broad brush, I would say the public is supportive and, in some communities, quite supportive. In some states, you might see 80 to 90 percent support. Cape Wind, when we first did a survey, we found a plurality opposed, but our second survey found a plurality supportive, and that's even the most controversial wind project. So, I would say, certainly a strong motivator of support is a vision of a clean energy future, and that resonates pretty much across the board. A lot of people in the literature disabuse the notion that [opponents of offshore wind] are NIMBYs—that this is just about a project being in their backyard. Really, it’s more about the impact of industrialization on places. People have attachments to places. They have identities that are associated with places.
People are dependent on these places for livelihoods and for a lot of people, it will depend on whether they perceive the wind projects as being consistent or inconsistent with their notion of place. Is it in place or out of place? There is landscape fit: how you see this, whether you see the wind turbines as fitting with the landscape. So, there's clearly an aesthetic aspect. Fair process plays an important role, so procedural justice is quite important. People want to be treated with respect, and feel that their voices have been heard and that maybe they've influenced the outcome somewhat. So, that's a lot of what we see with communities.
I think, with commercial fishers, where we're talking about not a community of place, but also a community of practice. There is, I think, a sense of a loss of culture. It's not just a job, it's a way of life. For commercial fishers, they don't see much of an upside. It's just how big is the downside going to be.
Kristin Hayes: Right. So one question about that sense of place, and forgive me, I'm not remembering the term that you used, but about how the wind turbines themselves might fit into the landscape. What can developers do to actually affect that? Is that a matter of putting things farther offshore so they're less visibly impacting the landscape, or what are the levers that people can use when it comes to changing how an offshore wind development might fit in a landscape?
Jeremy Firestone: Well, certainly moving them further offshore is one solution. It comes with greater expense, so there are trade offs. Developers are working quite closely with the Federal Aviation Administration on lighting, so that if you can reduce lighting, that can be of benefit. I think part of it is experience with wind turbines too. We now have from coastal Rhode Island wind turbines that are about 18 miles offshore, so people can go there and actually get a sense of what they look like, how often you can see them, when you can't see them, and what they look like when you can see them. Part of it is giving people information, but there is probably only so much you can do to make them invisible. We can't make them invisible.
Kristin Hayes: Sure. That would be quite a feat. Your most recent paper, the one that I referenced at the beginning, is actually about offshore wind development and coastal recreation in particular, another use of the place. Can you say just a little bit more about what you and your colleagues were specifically investigating in this particular paper, as well as what you found?
Jeremy Firestone: Yeah. And I'd like to give a shout out to a lead author, Mike Ferguson, from the University of New Hampshire, and the second author, Darrick Evensen, who did a lot of the statistical work from the University of Edinburgh. We had a nice team of people working on this, and I think effects on recreational use, as we've seen in other papers, like that one that I worked on with my colleague George Parsons, can be either positive or negative. So some coastal tourists find their experience better, others worse.
Again, it's somewhat distance dependent, but in this particular paper, we applied a stress coping framework to manage the negative effects. So you have beliefs about the effects on your recreational experience. If you think it's going to be negative, you might undertake various coping mechanisms such as resource substitution (you go to a different beach), activity substitution (you go to the same beach, but you do something different), or maybe you just avoid going to the beach for some period of time. This will then have an effect on both your attitude in the short term, and in the long term it may change your behavioral intentions. So Mike undertook a systematic internet survey and surveyed marinas, boat launches, angling locations, and beaches off the coast of New Hampshire. Overall, we found that offshore wind would have a positive impact if you look at the mean experience on coastal recreational experience. There was more enhancement than disruption.
We then undertook more advanced modeling to measure the effects of coping and attitudes. What we found was that the perceived effect on recreational experience had both a direct effect on attitudes towards the offshore wind project (or theoretical offshore wind project, because there isn't one off of New Hampshire) and it had indirect effects through the coping mechanisms. The direct effect was larger, and then the negative effect was partially mediated by these coping behaviors; together, they explained about 60 percent of the variance in attitudes. One other point, I think we have to caveat this is that the population was largely local. They were experienced, they were repeat visitors who were pretty highly educated; slightly more than half had a college degree. They were politically moderate and, not surprising given the population of New Hampshire, they were about 95 percent white. So how this then translates into some of the broader communities, we'll have to see.
Kristin Hayes: All right, very interesting. I guess to be honest I'm surprised that the perception would actually lean towards the positive. I can imagine that it might stay at neutral, but actually sort of increasing someone's enjoyment of coastal recreation given the proximity to offshore wind development strikes me as surprising. So is there anything else you could add about kind of why people would actually feel better about coastal recreation? Does it play into the same kind of desire to see the evolution of a clean energy future?
Jeremy Firestone: That's what I would surmise, and we found similar things when we did this coastal tourism study from South Carolina up to Cape Cod. So some people find their experience better. Some people find it worse. We actually found that around when the wind turbines were about 15 miles from shore was the point where more people found their experience improved than harmed … We also know that there's what might be referred to as geek tourism. So people who might not even go to the beach, but would say, "okay this is the newest and greatest. And I'll go to the beach and see what this is." So there is that aspect as well, and then people who go to the beach and recreate may want to see them, and so they may switch to the beach. You're going to have some people who switch to other beaches, and it's somewhat of a dynamic situation.
Kristin Hayes: Very interesting. Obviously a lot of your research has involved interactions directly with communities. You mentioned earlier that engagement with communities is a really important part of successful deployment of offshore wind. So what have you and colleagues found over time? What are some of the best practices related to that engagement?
Jeremy Firestone: Well, I think you need to appreciate diversity. Communities are different and groups within communities can differ too. I think you need to go and talk to people where they are. So you can't just have meetings and say, "Okay, show up at my place at 7:00 on a Monday night." You’ve got to go to some local civic organization (when we're all back together again) on the first Monday of the month; you go and arrange to chat with them. So engagement has to be meaningful and not diffuse. We have found in the fishery context that developers having fishery liaisons are quite valuable. These are people who have worked on the commercial fishing side and now are liaisons to that community. I know at Block Island, they had a resident on Block Island who serves as sort of a cultural liaison. Having community members working for the developers as a go between to a certain extent certainly can help. Those are, I think, some of the best practices that the developers could implement.
Kristin Hayes: Well, and I think that really squares with one part of the Biden administration's plan related to offshore wind development, which does point to some additional research needs. They plan to make some funding available to, and I put this in quotes here to quote, "improve understanding of offshore, renewable energy for the benefit of a diversity of stakeholders. The grant funding will support objective community-based research in the Northeast." So, it's clear that they're taking this to heart and trying to provide some additional funding for folks like yourself to potentially engage with these communities. But are there other areas where—this is one of my favorite questions to ask on the podcast because it's every researcher's favorite question—but where else do we need more research in this area? What do we still need to learn that you think would actually help facilitate the deployment of offshore wind in the United States?
Jeremy Firestone: Well, again, I think the social dimensions are really the key. We know a lot about the technology. Yes, we can improve it, and we can continue to drive down costs, but the social issues are the near-term impediments to this industry. Without a thorough understanding, as I said in the letter to Science in 2019, of the human context, we may fall well short of realizing the full potential of offshore wind energy. I strongly urge that we collect some very good baseline social science data. We're about to engage in a large, grand social experiment where we're going effectively from zero to a hundred with offshore wind, and we really should be getting some large baseline data across the East Coast, and going back to individuals over time. I think that we need more research into relationships that people have with places, as well as how they perceive risk. We certainly could use a better understanding of how some of the marginalized coastal communities feel about offshore wind. We tend to hear more about wealthy communities and their objections, but not too much about marginalized communities. I think that fits in well with the administration's focus on inclusion and environmental justice as well.
Kristin Hayes: Great. Well, Jeremy this has been really fantastic. It's nice to hear a little bit more from an expert in this area about what this ramp up of offshore wind might look like in practice, and, of course, all the things that we still need to figure out to really make that viable, like as you said, ensuring that these projects are inclusive for the communities which are being impacted. So it's great. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me today.
Jeremy Firestone: Oh, you're quite welcome. It's been my pleasure.
Kristin Hayes: Oh, good. So we'll close the podcast with our regular feature, Top of the Stack. In case this isn't familiar to you, basically, we just ask our guests to recommend something that's on the proverbial or literal top of your stack: could be a book, an article, a podcast, any other content you might want to recommend to our listeners. So Jeremy, what's on the top of your stack?
Jeremy Firestone: My stack is quite stacked. There's a new paper out in Nature Energy by Ryan Wiser and colleagues about future wind power prices out to 2050, looking at expert elicitation and trying to understand why the experts were wrong the last time and wind power prices decreased much more than they thought. Steven Jarvis has done an interesting report on property value effects of large-scale wind and solar facilities in the United Kingdom and he's made some nice methodological advances in looking at failed projects and policy. Ken Gillingham—it just came across my desk this morning—has a new National Bureau of Economic Research report on carbon policy and emission implications of electric vehicles (EVs), and as an EV owner I've got a personal stake in that one too.
I just finished Augustine Sedgewick's book, Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, and I highly recommend it. I think it is a cautionary tale for renewables. We've recently heard about the concerns over forced labor and solar panels, and there are certainly concerns about how we might go about engaging in mining for precious metals that are going to be required for batteries. It really tells the dark history of our favorite drug, caffeine. The protagonist is James Hill. He's an Englishman from Manchester. He finds his way to El Salvador and becomes the head of one of the so-called 14 families. For a good deal of the twentieth century, these families controlled El Salvador's economy and politics and led with dictators. To advance development the government privatized land and forced indigenous peoples to move to marginal lands or find work on coffee plantations. The planters systematically created this sort of monoculture of coffee. It had the further effect of transforming subsistence foragers and farmers into day laborers. As some of us know, this ultimately eventually leads to the Salvadorian civil war that happened from the late '70s to the early '90s, if my memory serves me correctly. So I think it's a cautionary tale and a really interesting story, and I highly recommend it to the listeners of the podcast.
Kristin Hayes: Those are some great recommendations, and we will make sure to post links to all of those things. Jeremy, thanks again. It's been great to talk with you and look forward to staying in touch.
Jeremy Firestone: Okay. Well, thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.
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