For New Jersey, it is about more than just tackling climate change. Just as Texas is the de facto capital of the U.S. oil and gas industry, New Jersey wants to be an economic engine for offshore wind.
“We have a huge opportunity,” said Tim Sullivan, chief executive of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. “Somebody's going to get to be the Houston of American offshore wind.”
To make sure New Jersey plays that role, the state government is planning to turn 30 acres along the Eastern Shore of the Delaware River 20 miles south of Wilmington, Del., into a staging area for assembling the massive turbines. Taller than 800 feet, the turbines will tower higher than the Washington Monument.
State leaders are also hoping to coax factories to the rural area, too, and have set aside 25 acres for potential turbine part manufacturers. They aim to start construction next year and launch operations by 2024. Another 160 acres will be available for future development.
“We’ll be able to be the focal point for the industry in this part of the country,” Murphy said in an interview.
The port is part of the state’s broader plan to get all of its electricity from clean energy by the middle of the century. New Jersey, already one of the nation’s fastest-warming places, wants to generate 7,500 megawatts from offshore wind by 2035 — enough to power half of New Jersey’s homes.
Murphy also has his sights on supplying Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia, all of which have plans to build offshore wind generation along the Eastern Seaboard’s shallow waters.
“We want a significant piece of the supply chain in New Jersey,” Murphy said. “So we’re literally creating this industry from whole cloth.”
The port, he added, “is a huge step in that direction.”
The South Jersey site — named Artificial Island after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created it around 1900 — checks off a number of boxes for politicians and engineers.
It is five miles from the nearest residential area. It is already home to three nuclear reactors — run by Public Service Enterprise Group, an energy company based in Newark — to provide electricity.
And crucially, there are no bridges between it and the open ocean. That is important because after being assembled, the turbines are often stood upright and moved into place by ship.
The Murphy administration expects the port to employ 1,500 workers and cost up to $400 million to complete, with taxpayers and companies splitting the bill.
The city of New Bedford, Mass., has a 28-acre turbine-assembly area. But it does not have the space New Jersey has to host manufacturing plants, Murphy’s office said. New York, too, is looking to invest up to $200 million to upgrade ports for offshore wind.
Dan Reicher, who ran the Energy Department’s renewable energy office under Bill Clinton and is not involved in the New Jersey project, said Murphy’s plan is “a serious shot in the arm at a very difficult moment” as the country confronts both climate change and covid-19.
The offshore energy industry also welcomed Murphy’s announcement.
“This is a smart move by New Jersey” said Erik Milito, head of the National Ocean Industries Association. “Conservatively, the Atlantic offshore wind industry is estimated to deliver a $70 billion supply chain this decade alone. But the East Coast needs improved port facilities to maximize the full benefits of offshore wind.”
Over the past decade, wind energy has eaten into the market share of coal and nuclear power. It now accounts for about 7 percent of all the nation’s electricity.
But virtually all that generation is happening in windswept prairie states, such as Iowa and Kansas, along with Texas.
Europe, by comparison, is far ahead in harnessing fiercer ocean winds, with over 5,000 offshore turbines connected to the grid in a dozen countries. Denmark, England, Germany and Northern Ireland all have ports specialized for wind turbine construction.
The United States, meanwhile, has only five utility-scale offshore turbines — all off Rhode Island.
But that may soon change, with Maryland, Massachusetts and New York also setting major targets. The enormous size of the turbines means that much of the manufacturing will happen domestically.
One issue: Any project in federal waters requires permits from the Trump administration.
In speeches, President Trump is hostile toward wind turbines, accusing them without evidence of causing cancer. But his deputies at the Interior Department have gone ahead with lease sales off three states.
But last year, approval for an 84-turbine project off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts hit a snag when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it required more study on the impact to commercial fishermen.
Jane Cohen, a senior environmental policy adviser for Murphy, said they are in touch with federal officials and “feel confident that these projects will be able to move forward.”
James Manwell, professor and director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said it would make more sense for the U.S. government to coordinate construction between the states — like it did in the shipbuilding boom during World War II.
“If this was a rational world,” he said, “the federal government would take a greater role.”
The coronavirus pandemic, too, has dealt a blow to the renewable energy sector as a whole, which prided itself on projections that solar installers and wind turbine technicians would be the two fastest growing occupations over the next decade.
Since March, more than 620,000 clean energy workers have lost their jobs in the United States, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by an advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs.