Europe is betting big on offshore wind to lead the way towards its target of net zero emissions by 2050. The USA is playing catch-up, while Canada is missing in action. The Canadian government seems oblivious to the fact that the country has hugely valuable offshore wind resources.
Across the pond, Europe has some of the world’s best offshore wind. With 12 Gigawatts (GW) of offshore turbines already up and running, the European Union has announced plans to ramp up capacity to 60 GW by 2030. This doesn’t include the brexited UK which, on November 25, published a 10-point plan to achieve net zero energy by 2050. Top of the list? A target of 40 GW of offshore wind operational by 2030. This ambitious program is not just wishful thinking. Last week, two European companies announced they had completed a deal to finance what in 2026 will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm. The Dogger Bank project, located off the northeast coast of the UK, will have a total rated capacity of 3.6 GW.
This map shows offshore wind resources published by the Global Wind Atlas —a joint program of the World Bank and the Technical University of Denmark.
The darkest purple colours indicate the regions with the greatest potential—those with an annual mean windspeed of over 9.75 m/s. Canada’s Atlantic wind resources are at the same level as the North Sea, Irish Sea, and the Baltic. Our neighbours to the south have finally woken up to this immense resource idling off the east coast of America.
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), there are currently 15 active commercial leases for offshore wind development in the U.S. If these leases are fully built out, they will support approximately 25 GW of offshore wind capacity. But the resource is huge. The AWEA estimates the total resource potential along the Atlantic coast at 2000 GW.
At the moment, only one wind farm is currently operational. The Block Island Wind Farm, developed by Deepwater Wind, is a 30 Megawatt (MW, not GW) project off the coast of Rhode Island. This is small potatoes compared to Europe. But where’s Canada? How many offshore wind turbines are in Canadian waters?
Zero. Not a single one.
According to the most recent data from BlumbergNEF, solar PV and onshore wind are now the cheapest sources of new power generation for at least two-thirds of the global population. Those two-thirds live in locations that comprise 71% of global GDP and 85% of energy generation. Moreover, battery storage is now the cheapest technology for meeting peak demand (up to two-hours of discharge duration) in Europe, China, and Japan.
Electricity generated by offshore wind turbines is more costly than that produced by their landlubber cousins. But this is changing, as turbines get larger and capacity factors improve. Analysis conducted by Lazard shows that offshore wind has reached parity with fossil fuel energy in Germany and Denmark and is projected to do so in the United Kingdom between 2025 and 2030. In the U.S., the project pipeline is growing, mostly along the northeast Atlantic coast. As more projects are deployed, the levelized cost of energy of U.S. offshore wind is expected to fall to levels in Europe and China and reach parity within the next decade.
There are several advantages to offshore wind compared to onshore installations. These are exceptionally large machines, and they are not silent. You absolutely do not want one in your back yard. Onshore, spinning turbine blades kill birds and bats; out to sea, they are much less dangerous. Moreover, you get more bang for your buck: windspeeds are higher offshore.
Coastal folk that value their unblemished seascapes should not unduly fret: the largest windfarms are usually several kilometres offshore. The Walney Extension windfarm, the largest in the world at the present time, is 14 km off the west coast of the UK in the Irish Sea.
Engineering the future
How much energy are we talking about? If Canada were to match the UK’s ambition, the government would aim for 30 GW of installed offshore capacity by 2030. With capacity factors now rising close to 60 percent, we can estimate annual electricity production at about 158 terrawatthours (TWh). To put that in perspective, the consumption of electricity in all of Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Ontario combined, was 350 TWh in 2017. A meshed high-voltage direct current (HVDC) grid brings power ashore linking Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario, picking up Quebec’s hydropower along the way.
If Eastern Canada moves aggressively to shut down fossil fuel power plants, electrify transport and new buildings, and substitute for natural gas in building retrofits, the consumption of electricity will rise by roughly an additional 150 TWh/yr during the next decade. The 30 GW Atlantic offshore wind farms can easily provide this energy.
The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is potentially huge. Emissions from all provinces in Eastern Canada accounted for almost 40 percent of Canada’s total emissions in 2018. By 2030 Canada should be well on the way to the electrification of terrestrial transport, the majority of buildings should be fully electrified, and green hydrogen will be fuelling industry. Canada’s Atlantic wind farms move the country well down the path to meeting its Paris Agreement target.
Moreover, the economic co-benefits are enormous. Nova Scotia becomes the north American hub for offshore wind power. Several thousand engineers from Alberta flock to Halifax, now the centre of the offshore wind industry. There are huge opportunities for employment. Take Texas for instance. The state has 24 GW of onshore windpower and 25,000 people work in the industry. Pro rata, 30 GW of offshore wind in Atlantic Canada waters should create an industry employing at least 31,000 people, and probably many more—given the additional infrastructure and resources required for the installation and maintenance of offshore turbines.
On November 19, 2020, Canada’s Liberal government tabled Bill C-12, the Canadian Net Zero Accountability Act. The purpose of the Act is to “require the setting of national targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions … in support of achieving net-zero emissions in Canada by 2050 and Canada’s international commitments in respect of mitigating climate change.” Sounds spot on.
But there’s a catch. The first emissions reduction plan required by the Act only sets a target for 2030—ten years away. This is nonsense. It just kicks the accountability can farther down the road. A clear emissions reduction target for 2025 is essential.
What should be among the 2025 targets for Canada’s path towards net zero emissions by 2050? Phase one of Atlantic Canada’s world class offshore wind farms would be a good start.
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Also, check out the content at the Neighbours for the Planet website. NftP is one of the most progressive and innovative non-profit organisations in Canada working on environmental issues and the climate crisis.