Dirty Collabs: Jess Dealy, Atmospheric Scientist and Renewable Energy Expert
A longtime Brooklyn resident currently living in Upstate New York, Jess Dealy knows a lot about something you might have never heard of: offshore wind energy. (If you surf, you might think this has something to do with great wave conditions, but… that’s not quite it.) Offshore wind energy is a new industry in the U.S. that involves building wind turbines offshore—AKA in the water off our coastlines—to generate unbelievable amounts of clean, renewable energy: according to Dealy, just one turn of an offshore turbine blade can power a house for a week. She’s currently working on a project located ten to twenty miles off the coast of New Jersey - far enough off the shore to be in federal waters, but close enough to power larger metropolitan areas. If you live in a coastal area, you might begin to see them crop up here and there. When you do, know you’re in good hands.
We talked to Dealy to understand the benefits of offshore wind power and what it will look like in the coming months and years, plus how we can help. Read on to learn more.
Can you tell us a bit about your work and how you got into it?
My dad was in the navy growing up so I moved around a lot. My parents retired to Alabama, so that’s where I went to high school, but I’ve lived in Brooklyn longer than anywhere. My background is meteorology and climatology. I worked in the wind industry developing on-shore wind farms— renewable energy—for about seven years. I was part of their atmospheric science team, taking wind measurements and designing wind farm layouts based on the findings there. Then I was absorbed into our offshore group when the Northeast really opened up to offshore wind energy.
What does that look like?
Basically, states from Virginia all the way up to Massachusetts have federal lease areas ten to twenty miles off their coastline that have been bought by major companies like Shell, BP, Ørsted, Avangrid, Equinor, and EDF; the major utility and gas players and renewable energy developers. They’ve acquired these lease areas, which gives them the right to build commercial-sized, offshore wind farms within them. Each state has set renewable targets with really ambitious offshore wind goals. So for instance, the state of New York wants to acquire 9.5 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030. That’s a tremendous amount of power. New Jersey wants to acquire 7.5 gigawatts by 2030, and they both have goals set to be using 100% clean energy by 2050.
What are you working on now?
I now lead external affairs for one of the largest offshore wind companies in the offshore space—what that means is I find strategic partnerships with universities and environmental organizations, or cleantech business that can be complementary to offshore wind development. So, folks who want to research tidal currents; or they want to research artificial reefs that develop on turbine foundations; or perhaps they’re interested in showcasing a new type of robotics that can monitor underwater transmission cables—things like that. So I help sign partnerships with my company with those types of organizations. I also handle all of our press and media relations and stakeholder outreach. Making sure communities are aware of offshore wind and what it means in their state is very important.
What does the offshore wind space look like in the US right now?
This is a new industry in the US—not in Europe. We only have one offshore wind farm right now and it’s only five turbines, so not commercially-scaled. The projects being developed in the US now are going to be some of the largest in the world, but not a lot of average folk know about offshore wind—it’s brand new. So a lot of my job is going out and talking about the science of offshore wind, talking about our project, making sure people have their questions and concerns answered... doing a lot of listening and reporting back.
Can you tell us some of the differences between offshore and onshore wind power?
Onshore wind turbines, while still very large, can’t actually generate as much energy as offshore—with offshore turbines, you’re not limited to size. Onshore turbine parts have to be delivered by rail or semi truck, so you have to stay within certain dimensions. Offshore you have deliverability through barges; you can manufacture these turbines on a port and ship it out directly in the water, so they get larger and can produce even more power. Right now, just one turn of an offshore turbine's rotor can power a house for a week. They’re really impressive machines. The offshore wind resource is more steady and stronger than onshore because there are no buildings or mountains or trees to get in the way. It’s really steady and strong.
Of course, most of the areas you can build onshore wind farms are in farmland, wide open spaces. But we, the ratepayers—those who need to turn their lights on—aren’t often nearby those wide open spaces. With offshore, you can have a farm ten miles off the coast of New York City with a transmission line directly to the city, so you can deliver the power to areas that really need it faster.
Why is this such a new industry in the US?
Mostly it’s because the United States has had the space to build onshore wind farms. Take the Netherlands for example—there is not a lot of room to put turbines onshore, so they had to go offshore earlier. In the United States, there have also been cheaper ways to generate electricity up until this point. The cool thing about both solar and wind energy is that prices have dropped so significantly over the past several decades that now the price of building a wind farm is about the same price as building a new natural gas plant, and can be cheaper than many other forms of traditional energy generation. So you can build this electricity for much cheaper, which is another reason the US has really gotten into it—they finally see the economics of these projects coming along. The U.S. has observed and learned from overseas offshore wind farms for the last 30 years, and they know they can generate a tremendous amount of power for a low cost.
Another reason we’re seeing a spike in the US is because of the number of jobs it can create. A lot of elected officials are very interested in seeing the manufacturing of turbines, or the manufacturing of the foundations that secure these turbines to the seafloor, in the US—in particular in their own states. So the US is looking at it from an economic perspective, wanting to create local manufacturing jobs, in addition to the thousands of jobs the industry can create as a whole.
How does it compare to solar energy?
It’s very comparable. There are plenty of places to build solar farms, there are plenty of places to build wind farms. The thing about the two is that they are complementary: the sun is not always up, it sets at night, so solar can’t always generate power when we need it. And the wind is not always blowing. The main thing is that we need a diversified grid. We need many sources of power generation—we can’t put all our eggs in one basket. Both solar and wind are a major part of switching over to clean energy. It’s also another thing that’s really been driving offshore wind in the United States—the IPCC climate reports and the dire situation we find ourselves in regarding rising sea levels, and what CO2 emissions mean for our global average temperature. In an effort to better air quality, to improve the climate, the states are taking the approach themselves to reduce the amount of, and dependency on, fossil fuels. Instead, they want to switch over to renewable energy now.
What are some key things that would be helpful for the average individual to know about wind energy?
It’s useful for people to know that states are committed to transitioning their power generation to renewable energy. As part of that, offshore wind—if you live in a coastal area—is going to be a big part of your generation mix. For example in Sunset Park, New Yorkers will start seeing the port there reconstructed to work better for the offshore wind industry. I suppose it’s also important for people to know that offshore wind is going to be a major job creator from Virginia to Massachusetts. It’s going to reduce CO2 emissions by thousands and thousands of tons. It’s not going to impact electricity bills in a significant manner.
Have you seen any pushback against these wind energy farms?
Sure, yeah, there are plenty of stakeholders that have concerns. One of the main ones is commercial fishing. Developers have been tasked with cohabitating with commercial fisherman. They are a multi-trillion dollar industry serving seafood to anyone that wants it in the United States. And now they’re having these offshore wind farms built where they typically had free reign. Naturally, they’re concerned about their ability to navigate through wind farms to fisheries. But we’re working with them to make sure that our layouts are transversable—so they can still get to where they need to go and we’re not disrupting existing fishing grounds that are their primary sources. Simultaneously we are working on the science side to make sure offshore wind won’t disrupt the ecosystems that exist in our oceans.
There are also some coastal residents who are worried about the visibility aspect of their coastlines. It is a sacrifice to make to not be able to see the open sea, and see instead an offshore wind farm. Some folks are excited to see it—they see these turbines as majestic and as a way of knowing that their electricity comes from a clean energy source. But hopefully those who are worried will also see the benefits that come from switching to offshore wind, and that it outweighs seeing a turbine or two off the coast.
Is switching to 100% renewable energy sources possible?
It would be wonderful to see the US grid switch completely over to renewables. Bio-gas, wind energy, solar energy, hydro. It’s absolutely possible. It means transmission upgrades—the US is in desperate need of an upgraded transmission system. Battery technology has really come a long way—batteries and storage can be a major part of that, storing the energy from renewable sources in batteries. Overall the only real side effects are transmission upgrades, a more stable grid, less blackouts... and better air quality.
What can individuals do to help expedite this process?
Join environmental organizations. Call your local mayors. Write to your governor and congressman and say you’re in favor of switching to offshore wind and clean energy. Help write op-eds to local newspapers and say you’re in favor of this energy transition. Find sources of pure information, correct information, scientific information about wind energy as a whole. And of course, the cheapest form of energy is the energy you don’t use. So turning off lights when you’re not in the room, turning down your heater when you leave your house—watching your electricity usage overall. Understand it is not an endless resource.
To learn more about offshore wind energy, visit cleanpower.org.