04/02/2021

Biden Administration Opens Up OffShore Wind Energy

12:00 minutes

The Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island is the first US offshore wind farm. Five Halide 6MW turbines, recently installed by Deepwater Wind, are being commissioned for use.
The Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. Credit Dennis Schroeder

The Biden administration announced a wind power plan that aims to support more offshore deployment—expanding jobs and infrastructure investment. The plan includes development of a new Wind Energy Area in shallow waters between Long Island and the New Jersey coast. The goal, deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2033. Amy Nordrum from MIT Technology, joins Science Friday to discuss that story along with Biden’s proposed $250 billion budget for scientific research and a mysterious interstellar visitor.


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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, a look at some head-scratching physics findings at CERN and combating the climate crisis by feeding cattle seaweed. But first, wind power might be getting a major jolt. Wind energy in the US has been on the rise in the past decade. Over 8% of utility generated electricity now comes from wind. And the Biden administration has announced a major plan for large-scale offshore wind farms. That includes a proposed 84 large wind turbines off the East Coast that is estimated to power 10 million homes per year. Amy Nordrum is here to fill us in on that story and other stories in science. She’s an editor at MIT Technology Review. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi Ira. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK. Let’s get right into this wind energy plan. What will these wind farms look like?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, the Biden administration has moved forward with permitting several new wind farms that have already been proposed and will also make room for new wind farms. They are planning to auction off more leases for companies that want to develop wind farms and offer federal loans to help them fund these projects. And they’re even investing in infrastructure projects, so upgrading ports that need to be there to have the wind turbines actually installed off the coast there. So the US is really behind in offshore wind. Many other countries have invested a lot more heavily into it. UK is getting 14% of its electricity from offshore wind right now. And Denmark is getting about half of its power from wind energy. So this really shows that the Biden administration wants the US to catch up.

IRA FLATOW: And so why is that? Why are we so far behind? Why has it been so difficult to get offshore wind in this country?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, there have been a few projects that have been met with community pushback along the coast of the northeast. People who didn’t want wind turbines in their view of their homes. So that’s been one barrier. And certainly, the incentives of the Biden administration is also going to help here because these projects are really costly to install. They’re large infrastructure projects in their own right, actually getting these turbines– which are really, really massive– turbines installed and anchored to the ocean floor. So certainly, those financial incentives will help in that regard as well.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So this fits in right into the administration’s bigger climate or clean energy plans.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, that’s right. I mean, the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement now, thanks to the Biden administration, which sets targets for reducing carbon emissions dramatically. Biden has his own ambitious goal of getting to a 100% clean energy across the country in the next 15 years. As you said, these projects, this goal is now to power about 10 million homes. So that really won’t get us all the way there, offshore wind. There’s about 140 million homes in the US so it’s just part of the picture here. And both Biden’s economic and climate agenda really rest on creating new jobs. And the wind industry is definitely one where the administration is hoping to create a lot more manufacturing and installation jobs.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk a bit about the Biden-proposed infrastructure budget, a large budget that includes funds for scientific research. Do you have any idea yet what’s inside there?

AMY NORDRUM: We have a bit of an idea, yes. I mean, there was a huge spending plan announced on Wednesday called the American Jobs Act, really meant to stimulate the economy, help the US recover from that pandemic. All in all, it’s more than $2 trillion and it’s got a lot of stuff in there. A lot of money toward infrastructure projects, things like bridges and roads.

But there’s a good chunk– many billions of dollars– to directly support new scientific research and projects that would help translate scientific discoveries into new technologies. So that money would go toward doing things like upgrading federal labs and creating new academic centers of excellence for early stage research. And there’s about $15 billion that would go toward climate-related demonstration projects. So things like carbon capture and storage, advanced nuclear power, and electric vehicles.

IRA FLATOW: So this is more than just making up for what Trump took out of the science budget. This is really adding more stuff on.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it really is. I mean, in the case of the National Science Foundation, which funds a lot of basic research through grants, they would get about $50 billion over a period of a couple of years under this plan. Their budget was actually pretty steady over the last few years. It wasn’t cut dramatically under Trump, largely because Congress didn’t allow that to happen. But they’re currently at about $8.5 billion. So this would still be a good increase for them.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s turn now to some vaccine news. Lots of states are opening up vaccines to more age groups. Pfizer is now getting data on how vaccines work in adolescents and it’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

AMY NORDRUM: It’s very good news, yes, Pfizer said on Wednesday its COVID vaccine had 100% efficacy in adolescents. And that’s good because vaccinating young adults and children is going to be necessary for us to really reach herd immunity. Currently, their vaccine is authorized for people who are at least 16 years old. And so they’ve submitted this data that they announced on Wednesday to the FDA to get an expanded authorization to allow their vaccine to be used in younger people. And so if they get that, that could be in place before the beginning of next school year.

IRA FLATOW: And are Moderna and Johnson & Johnson running similar kinds of trials on kids?

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, they are. We should have results from a Moderna study later this year that’s in 12 to 17-year-olds. And then, all the companies are also doing trials to test the vaccine on even younger children.

IRA FLATOW: And states are opening up age requirements to younger people now. They’re going down to what, 16-year-olds?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. There’s more and more states that are allowing everybody over the age of 16 to be vaccinated and no longer restricting it to people of a certain age group.

IRA FLATOW: Your next story looks at a union vote, an important union vote in an Amazon warehouse in Alabama. And this might be a major turning point because we’re now talking about the tech industry.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. I mean, workers in the tech industry, they’ve been more and more interested in unionizing in the last two years for a variety of different reasons. And in the last few weeks, thousands of Amazon workers in Alabama, at a warehouse there, have been voting on whether or not they want to unionize. And if they vote for it, this would be the first Amazon union in the company’s history.

So voting closed on Monday. The votes are now being tallied, which could take a few more days or maybe even weeks. But no matter which way this goes, labor organizers are already considering this a win because it’s gotten so much attention and it’s just raised awareness of unions more generally in the tech industry. And they’re thinking Amazon workers and tech industry workers elsewhere will probably be much more interested in holding union drives wherever they are after this.

IRA FLATOW: And if they do succeed here, that doesn’t mean they have a contract yet. Then the bargaining has to first begin.

AMY NORDRUM: Right. Absolutely. It’s a first step, this can be a very, very long process.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know what basics they’re asking for and why it’s important to unionize tech?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. They’re asking for things common in union drives in other industries as well. So they’re asking for just being able to collectively bargain for contracts, negotiate for job security protection so they wouldn’t just be able to be fired at will. There’s also some safety conditions that they’ve expressed concern about. So they’re hoping that forming a union will give them more of a say in these questions.

IRA FLATOW: And as you say, others will be looking at what happens here. For example, Google and Facebook have also had moves by workers to unionize. Would this be the same type of union?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, all these unionization efforts are very different from each other. So there is the Alphabet Workers Union as you mentioned, it’s a few Google employees, what’s known as a minority union, and it was primarily formed kind of around values-driven efforts to give employees more of a say in Google’s decisions about which products are made or who gets to use them. And there’s other efforts among different classes of workers across company like ride share drivers and food delivery workers to form unions.

I mean, they’re all forming for different reasons and they all have different degrees of say in their negotiations with the company. It’s hard to say exactly how this will evolve. It’s still kind of early. But these are some of the most powerful and profitable companies in the world. So if these workers could exert any influence over which products get made or how workers are treated, that could be really huge.

IRA FLATOW: Now, let’s turn to something totally different. Let’s talk about oumuamua, that mysterious interstellar visitor that came by in 2017. The story of that just keeps evolving, doesn’t it? There’s something new now.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. Yeah, a few years ago, astronomers spotted this strange object shaped like a disk moving through our solar system. They didn’t know what it was at the time but they knew that it came from outside of our solar system. So it was the first interstellar object ever to be detected in our midst. And some thought it was a comet, but it really didn’t behave like a comet. It didn’t have a tail like you’d expect to see with a comet and it was more of a disk than a circle. The object really didn’t behave in ways that fit any of the explanations. So now, two astronomers from Arizona State University have come forward with a new theory that the object was a chunk of a far away planet that somehow got knocked off and made its way to us.

IRA FLATOW: What kind of planet? It would have had to be made out of the same kind of material. What kind of planet is that?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, I mean, it’d be an exoplanet. We don’t know much about what exactly it is. Or they think that the object is covered in nitrogen ice. That’s how they arrived at their theory because the object wasn’t really behaving the way you’d expect a comet to. And they thought one thing that might explain that would be if the whole object was covered in nitrogen ice, that would explain why there’s no tail because that’s hard to detect. It’s much harder to detect nitrogen than other kinds of gas that might form a tail, but yeah.

And the shape of the object could also be explained by that. Because if it was round at one point but the nitrogen ice on either side was melting away as it traveled through space, that might make it more into a disk. And there’s ice like that on other planetary bodies like Pluto, so this new object being covered in it made them think that it had broken off of a similar kind of body much further away.

IRA FLATOW: So that discounts the alien theory, at least for now.

AMY NORDRUM: Right. That was one theory about this object as well, that it was an alien spaceship of some kind. But yeah, this team is thinking that this one is much more plausible.

IRA FLATOW: And finally, your last story is about robots made out of frogs’ cells. We talked a bit about this story last year, so what’s the update here?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, they’re called xenobots, so a new kind of really tiny biological organism, and as you said, created for the first time last year. And then this week in science robotics, researchers reported a new generation of them, basically, that can live longer and move faster than the original ones. And they’ve even created an ability in them to change color when they’re exposed to certain stimuli, which acts as a rudimentary memory function.

IRA FLATOW: It’s kind of scary, this idea of living robots. I mean, think of the unforeseen consequences.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s definitely really a new kind of organism, using cells to make a brand new creature. We don’t even have the right terminology for this kind of thing. And their idea is to create swarms of these that could work together to do different things. But yeah, you could imagine that also getting out of control. So something that they have to definitely proceed with caution on.

IRA FLATOW: Wait a minute, I’ve got the film right here. I got the movie. We have oumuamua coming back with these frog cells on top of them.

AMY NORDRUM: There you go.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You have the exact science fiction movie that we need. But this is really it’s stranger than science fiction, right? This is really happening.

AMY NORDRUM: It’s really happening. Right now, these cells clusters only live for about a week and they can’t reproduce, so they’re not going to kind of get out of control in that respect. But yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting and it’s definitely teaching us some new things about developmental biology.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We’ll keep an eye and watch them very closely. Thank you, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordrum, editor at MIT Technology Review.

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