By 2050, one-third of U.S. electricity could be supplied by wind power. Along with land-based turbines, offshore wind “farms” of turbines spinning high above the seas will be a crucial component to a wind-powered future. For the field service industry, it could also mean tens of thousands of new jobs in construction and maintenance. That’s one of the larger points from the “National Offshore Wind Strategy,” a report jointly published in September by the U.S. Departments of Energy and the Interior that concluded the development of 86 gigawatts of offshore wind power would support 160,000 total jobs.

Since 2010, the Interior Department has awarded 11 commercial leases for the development of offshore wind facilities. Right now, those 11 leases for future offshore wind projects represent a combined maximum potential capacity of 14.5 gigawatts of wind power. It’s only a fraction of the 86 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity the Department of Energy thinks is plausible by 2050, when land-based and offshore wind energy combined could account for 35 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Image via Facebook/Deepwater Wind

Many of these early wind farms in federal waters will look a lot like the Block Island Wind Farm. The 30-megawatt, five-turbine farm in state waters off Rhode Island’s coast comes online this year and can generate enough electricity to power 17,000 homes in New England. Over time, such farms might grow to the point where one offshore wind project is supplying more than 1,000 megawatts of wind energy.

To reach 86 gigawatts of offshore wind power, the U.S. will most certainly need more than 11 offshore wind farms in federal waters, although how many more commercial leases are issued by the federal government is hard to say. Currently, wind farms use 6-megawatt or 8-megawatt turbines, but 10-megawatt turbine prototypes might be deployed as early as 2020. About 14,000 6-megawatt turbines would be needed to hit 86 gigawatts of offshore wind power, but only 8,600 turbines capable of producing 10 megawatts apiece are needed to generate the same overall amount of wind power.

A Windfall for the Service Industry?

“The Department of Energy doesn’t ultimately know how many leases they’ll be putting out,” says Bruce Hamilton, a director in the energy practice of Navigant Research. “But there’s a huge amount of wind available.”

There’s also a huge amount of jobs at stake. September’s “National Offshore Wind Strategy” report builds off an earlier “Wind Vision” analysis, which served as the basis for assuming 86 gigawatts is a plausible scenario of U.S. offshore wind capacity by 2050. The analysis drills down more specifically on what the possible jobs picture looks like: Roughly 15 percent of all land-based and offshore wind jobs will be on site, while 45 percent are turbine and supply-chain jobs. (The remaining 40 percent are “induced” jobs — the supposed local economic effect of people working in restaurants or hotels nearby.)

U.S. Offshore Wind Energy: By the Numbers
  • 1/3: Total U.S. electricity output that may be generated by wind power by 2050.
  • 160,000: Number of new jobs created to generate the 86 gigawatt wind power goal.
  • 3,500: Number of operations and maintenance jobs for the wind project by 2050.
  • 14,000: Estimated number of turbines required to hit 86 gigawatt goal.

In numerical terms, that means 44,000 construction jobs and almost 3,500 jobs in operations and maintenance will be required in 2050 to support however many offshore wind farms are required to hit 86 gigawatts of power. By 2030, there could already be 23,000 construction jobs and another 1,025 in operations and maintenance, according to a Department of Energy spokesperson.

But some of these jobs in construction are just temporary, although jobs in operations and maintenance could last up to 25 years beyond the opening of an offshore wind farm — and even longer, assuming offshore wind farms are kept operational.

“Anytime you calculate a number it’s a function of many assumptions,” Hamilton says.

Wind energy is policy, after all, and policies are subject to changes under the next administration. President-elect Trump is a critic of Obama’s alternative energy policies and this week picked Scott Pruitt, a leading critic of Obama’s climate change policies, to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The biggest assumption of all? That 86 gigawatts of wind power will be generated by offshore wind farms by 2050. Hamilton has his doubts.

“It’s probably not going to happen,” Hamilton says. “[Wind energy] is a policy-driven business, and policies are hard to forecast.”

ABOUT Andrew Zaleski

Avatar photoAndrew Zaleski is a Philadelphia-based journalist who contributes regularly to Fortune and CNBC. He has also written for The Atlantic, Popular Science, Politico Magazine, Backchannel, and elsewhere. @ajzaleski