US set for faster offshore wind permits under new rules

Federal authorities have streamlined offshore wind permitting as the industry moves towards more standardised reviews.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) finalised new rules that streamline regulations for offshore wind permitting.

The rules eliminate unnecessary deployment of metrological buoys, increase survey flexibility and improve design, fabrication and installation certification, in a raft of measures that should help to shorten permitting times and reduce offshore wind costs.

Set to be enacted in the coming weeks, the new rules also allow incremental funding of decommissioning accounts over the life of a facility and are predicted to save offshore wind stakeholders around $1.9 billion over the next 20 years, the Interior Department said.

The rules also require BOEM to publish a five-year schedule for offshore wind leasing that must be updated at least every two years. The bureau plans to conduct four lease sales this year followed by one in 2025, one in 2026, two in 2027 and two in 2028, it said. The Biden administration aims to install 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030, an unlikely goal given recent market headwinds.

   US offshore wind lease allocation schedule

                                (Click image to enlarge)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), April 2024

The streamlined permitting rules build on incremental improvements by approval authorities that are already helping to reduce permitting times. Federal authorities have thus far approved eight offshore wind projects under the Biden administration and are currently reviewing five more.

Review times have shortened since the pioneering 800 MW Vineyard Wind 1 project was approved in 2021, a BOEM spokesperson told Reuters Events. Developed by Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP), Vineyard Wind 1 encountered first-of-a-kind challenges and provided learnings for industry stakeholders.

Permitting has taken up to five years for some early projects but future projects could potentially be approved in half that time. Dominion Energy recently completed the entire permitting process for its 2.6 GW Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project in just over three years.

The new regulations set out by BOEM should help to "lower program costs by creating regulatory efficiencies and reducing redundancies," a spokesperson for New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) told Reuters Events.

Faster feedback

The BOEM has already made a number of improvements to offshore wind permitting following feedback from projects stakeholders.

The latest projects under review are “benefiting from the hard work this administration has done to streamline reviews and maximize interagency collaboration,” a BOEM spokesperson said.

                        Offshore wind projects in US North Atlantic

                                                           (Click image to enlarge)

Source: Department of Energy's 2023 Offshore Wind Market Report, August 2023.

The Biden administration has "improved staffing capacity" at the BOEM and in late 2022 the bureau set up the FAST-41 agency governance scheme "which has allowed for early identification and resolution of issues and improved overall interagency coordination," the spokesperson said.

Last year, BOEM published its ‘Notice of Intent (NOI) Checklist’ for offshore wind developers to clarify what information is required prior to environmental review. The checklist establishes a pre-application process and avoid delays later down the line.

Federal authorities have also set out deadlines for the 11 permit approvals required by each project.

For instance, BOEM is committed to completing the Environmental Impact Statement review for Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners' 2.6 GW Vineyard Northeast project within two years, setting a deadline of March 23, 2026.

States, federal agencies and industry stakeholders have been collaborating over the last few years “to make data collection more effective and to apply lessons learned from early projects to inform future projects," the NYSERDA spokesperson said.

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In another step forward, BOEM published a draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) in January for the wider New York Bight area that should help to streamline permitting for multiple lease areas.

"Standardizing how this group of projects will be permitted should provide greater transparency and operational efficiencies for the developers and agencies that could reduce cost and/or improve timelines," the NYSERDA spokesperson said.

The process would also lessen the burden on communities and affected ocean users by allowing them to participate in a single process that considers the group of projects, the spokesperson said.

Offshore wind developer Equinor welcomes the BOEM's focus on "regulations that reflect the experience of offshore wind projects that have worked through the process and are building upon key learnings to help stand up this new industry," a company spokesperson said.

Equinor, a Norwegian multinational oil and gas company, took full ownership of the 810 MW Empire Wind 1 and 1,260 MW Empire Wind 2 projects in April in a deal with former partner BP. The developer signed a new offtake agreement for Empire Wind 1 with New York authorities in February.

Virginia builds

The Biden administration set a target of completing environmental reviews for 16 offshore wind projects by 2025. While this target may not be met, approval times have been falling.

For example, the environmental review of Vineyard Northeast should be far faster than Vineyard Wind 1. In 2019, the review of Vineyard Wind 1 was delayed by around a year after BOEM decided to conduct a cumulative impact review of future offshore wind developments.

Dominion Energy secured the final permit for its 2.6 GW Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project last month, another major step forward for the sector.

Due online by 2026, Virginia Offshore Wind will be the largest U.S. offshore wind farm and the timeline of around three years for the entire permitting process highlights the progress made by the industry.

A pilot offshore wind project helped the company gain permitting knowledge and reduce risks, Dominion Energy spokesman Jeremy Slayton told Reuters Events last year.

Offshore monopile installation will begin this month, the company said.

"These regulatory approvals keep [the project] on time and on budget as we focus on our mission of providing customers with reliable, affordable and increasingly clean energy," Bob Blue, CEO and president of Dominion Energy, said.

Reporting by Neil Ford

Editing by Robin Sayles