Offshore Wind Energy, Not Nuclear, Is the Future
States across Europe and East Asia are closing nuclear reactors and replacing much of their electricity-generating capacity with offshore wind energy. Socialists should embrace the growth of this industry — and use green reindustrialization to fight for well-paid, stable jobs.
This month, the Netherlands will celebrate the completion of the Borssele 1 and 2 offshore wind farms, located twenty-two kilometers off the coast of the Dutch province of Zeeland. In the sleepy village where the transmission cables come ashore, a relic from the late 1960s hums away, awaiting its decommissioning. That’s because Borssele also has a nuclear power station — the Netherlands’ last remaining such facility, scheduled to be taken off-line in 2033.
Just over a decade ago, plans had been drawn up for a second, perhaps even a third, reactor on site. The abortive expansion project was scrapped partly as a consequence of popular opposition, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. But what was ultimately decisive was the law of value as identified by Karl Marx. With the declining cost of renewable energy, nuclear power simply does not make economic sense — even for capitalists, never mind socialists.
Many of the fervent debates within the Left concerning nuclear power have been strikingly unproductive for one simple reason. Nuclear advocates, woefully ill-informed about the frontiers of renewable energy development, tend to avoid discussing the actual dynamics of inter-capitalist competition in the electricity sector. But with many capitalist enterprises and states ditching nuclear and pushing forward with offshore wind, it is essential for socialists to better understand the latter — and begin to engage with it strategically.
Nuclear Power? No Thanks
Recent years have seen several prominent figures within the environmental movement and democratic-socialist left embrace nuclear power. They distance themselves from their (former) comrades’ quasi-religious technophobia, but erroneously call for a program of “people’s fission” that would supposedly solve the climate crisis in one fell swoop. This stance elides many of the real dangers of atomic energy, particularly in a country like the United States, where corruption is endemic and state regulatory capacities are weak. Whatever the politics and intentions of this varied bunch may be, left-of-center nuclear advocates all end up achieving the same thing — running interference for the fossil fuel industry, by casting doubt on the possibility of a renewable civilization.
In the United States, Europe, and the rest of the industrialized world, the true character of inter-capitalist competition in the energy industry is between fossil capital and their renewable rivals. While this distinction is often blurred in cases where oil and gas companies are moving into the renewable energy business, a distinction nonetheless remains. Rather than reciting the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda about the intermittency of renewables in order to advance the pet project of nuclear power, democratic socialists ought to focus on promoting the expansion of renewable energy while striving for the industry’s democratization through the workplace and political struggle.
Several advanced capitalist states, Denmark and Portugal in particular, are moving decisively toward 100 percent renewable electricity, and they are doing so largely by investing in offshore wind. Even France, whose 1980s program of atomic autarky is routinely touted by nuclear advocates, is aiming to close several reactors over the next decade and a half, replacing much of its electricity generating capacity with offshore wind energy. South Korea, although it continues to promote nuclear power abroad for the benefit of the country’s chaebol, has pledged to phase out many of its own nuclear power plants while aggressively promoting offshore wind energy through a coordinated industrial policy.
It is no wonder that Denmark, Portugal, and South Korea — not to mention Japan, China, and Taiwan — are so keen on offshore wind. While certainly intermittent, offshore wind is significantly less so than onshore wind or solar. Furthermore, offshore wind development does not imply the type of land-use conflicts that often accompany the construction of solar and wind farms in rural areas. While some in the commercial fishing industry have actively opposed offshore wind development, other fishermen have come to see the industry in a different light, not least because offshore wind presents potential employment opportunities for those working in an industry severely threatened by climate change.
Given the propensity for major cities to be located on the coast, offshore wind resources tend to be near population centers. Short transmission distances and rapidly declining construction and maintenance costs have rendered the average cost of offshore wind $89/MWh, with the cost of some projects as low as $58/MWh. Nuclear power, on the other hand, ranges between $118 and $192/MWh, even when discounting decommissioning and maintenance costs. All these factors make offshore wind the energy of the present, while nuclear power continues to be the energy of the always-distant future.
Though the United States is a laggard compared to many of the countries already mentioned, several East Coast states, from Maine to Virginia, are beginning to build large-scale offshore wind farms, many of which will rival or surpass European and East Asian projects in size. On the West Coast, where some wind speeds are even higher, but where waters are much deeper, sites once deemed uneconomical are now beginning to attract investors due to recent advances in floating turbine technology. Developing wind farms in the Great Lakes will prove more challenging due to the threat of ice shoves to turbines’ structural integrity, but the state of Ohio has recently approved a pilot project in Lake Erie.
Rather than supporting such state-level initiatives, the US federal government has stifled the growth of the domestic offshore wind industry. Some of the anticipated projects, most notably Massachusetts’s Vineyard Wind, have been repeatedly delayed by a Trump administration intent on employing executive power to bolster an otherwise uncompetitive fossil fuel industry. While much is made of Donald Trump’s antipathy toward wind energy, the federal government’s stance toward offshore wind is rooted less in the president’s personal proclivities and more in the material basis of US hegemony — and the fact that oil and gas production is a major industry in several swing states, most notably Pennsylvania and Texas.
Coddling the Petroleum Sector
That so many regional economies have become deeply dependent on the extractive industries is not a natural phenomenon of geography, as if there were no alternative. Rather, it is a consequence of the interaction between widespread deindustrialization and a federal industrial policy that has subsidized the fossil fuel industry for decades.
The foundations of the 2010s shale boom, presided over by the Obama administration, had been laid decades in advance by federal authorities. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the US Department of Energy was supporting research and development in unconventional oil and gas extraction through the Eastern Gas Shale Program and Western Gas Sands Project.
Over the same period, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) furnished the industry with hundreds of millions in annual research funding by authorizing a surcharge on gas customers. For its part, Congress granted $6 billion in tax credits for unconventional extraction from 1980 to 2002.
However, the most important public giveaway to the oil and gas industry was the Energy Policy Act of 2005, in which Congress quietly exempted fracking from most major federal environmental laws that aim to protect water and air quality. Pitched as assistance to what was then merely small-scale, mostly unprofitable, experimentation, the fracking industry has since grown substantially. Central to this story were the so-called Halliburton Loopholes, which exempted fracking from compliance with: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, better known as Superfund.
Unburdened of basically all relevant federal law, oil and gas companies have been insulated against competition from more heavily regulated renewables. All told, it was the US developmental state that was responsible for the rise, and ignominious fall, of an unconventional oil and gas industry that has ravaged rural landscapes and left us with leaking wells that amount to ecological time bombs. Working under conditions not of our own choosing, it is that developmental state we must now engage to move rapidly beyond fossil fuels and ensure a just transition.
While federal power is ultimately necessary to advance a comprehensive energy transition that doesn’t leave oil and gas workers in the lurch, in the immediate term we can focus on the individual states presently procuring offshore wind energy, each of which has the authority to impose local content requirements on project developers. Such requirements limit outsourcing and have the potential to reindustrialize coastal communities like New Bedford, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut. So far, though, most state governments have treated local content as a secondary consideration.
Consequently, for all the large-scale wind farms scheduled to be built off the US East Coast over the next several years, all the turbine parts and many of the foundations and undersea cables will be imported from Northern Europe. This echoes the experience of workers in the UK, who were told over a decade ago that offshore wind expansion would be accompanied by a green jobs boom, only to be continually shafted by outsourcing.
Like the United States, France is a relative latecomer to renewable energy development, but in stark contrast, the country is actively developing a renewables manufacturing industry. Although a Macroniste environmental policy is certainly not the way forward, it is undeniable that France has taken a comparatively more assertive approach to green reindustrialization, one very much in line with the country’s tradition of dirigiste industrial policy. Stipulating that its national energy company source turbine components domestically, the French government has set its sights on catching up with the likes of Denmark, which long ago spurred the development of (offshore) wind energy by obliging the country’s utilities to invest in wind farms and subsidizing their operations.
Turbine manufacturing is hardly the only avenue of green reindustrialization associated with offshore wind. As with offshore oil platforms, specialized vessels are required to construct and maintain offshore wind farms. In the United States, laws are already on the books that could mandate the domestic production of such ships. The Jones Act, a 1920 law that regulates maritime commerce, stipulates that all ships doing business between US ports must be built domestically. This long-forgotten protectionist measure, relevant once again, could help revive a domestic shipbuilding industry crushed by the Reagan administration and now subsumed almost entirely into “defense” production.
A truly comprehensive just transition would not only account for the fate of fossil fuel workers, but also naval shipbuilders and others whose livelihoods are dependent on the continued expansion of the military-industrial complex. From Bath Iron Works in Maine, where Machinists Local S6 waged the longest private-sector strike of 2020, to the shipyards of Groton, Connecticut; Newport News, Virginia; and Pascagoula, Mississippi, workers can be won over to a Green New Deal not by promising them a nebulous green job at some point down the line, but by fighting for a massive expansion of offshore wind energy, and by extension, a revival of the commercial shipbuilding industry.
For a Planned Phaseout
Despite being hampered by the Trump administration, the US offshore wind industry is beginning to take off. Meanwhile, the nuclear energy industry is in complete shambles, gobbling up $9 billion just to move some dirt around. The question is not whether socialists should promote nuclear power or renewable energy, but how quickly renewables will displace fossil fuels and on what terms.
Eying early developments in the UK, it is easy to foresee a program of gradual decarbonization of the electricity sector without concomitant reindustrialization— with a few factories built in right-to-work states, but with most turbine components imported from abroad. Ultimately, this would further delay the energy transition since we would continue to see industrial unions hold fast to an all-of-the-above energy strategy.
Socialists and realist greens should be demanding that states impose more stringent local content requirements, and also press the federal government to provide incentives like zero-interest loans to public power companies that launch offshore wind projects. While we engage the offshore wind industry at the state level, we must also work to build a long-term vision for a geographically informed federal industrial policy that links fossil fuel phaseout with green reindustrialization.