Offshore wind development in the United States is a popular new renewable energy option which has faced numerous political roadblocks and setbacks. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), an agency of the Department of the Interior (DOI), is responsible for all energy development in Federal waters. In 2009, the DOI announced final regulations for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Renewable Energy Program. These regulations lay the groundwork for activities associated with production and transmission of energy from renewable sources. The BOEM has made offshore wind possible via these regulations and by leasing area of the OCS for safe development activities like the construction of offshore wind farms.
Development has required extensive on-going research and has been influenced by the opinions of many different stakeholders. The BOEM and the companies who purchase OCS leases are only two of the various players with opinions regarding an offshore wind project. Local residents, fishermen, scientists, and policymakers also have a significant role, and their concerns must be addressed in the process of development.
Currently, the U.S. has only one functioning offshore wind farm, consisting of five wind turbines off of Block Island, Rhode Island which generate 30 megawatts (MW) of electricity for the island’s 1,000 residents. While the Block Island project is a significant milestone in U.S. energy development, there is more offshore wind power available to harness which would meet a growing energy demand. The Department of Energy published data indicating that more than 2,000 gigawatts (GW) could be accessed in state and federal waters along the U.S. coasts and in the Great Lakes. This number is equivalent to about two times the current electricity generating capacity of all power plants in the United States–so even if not all available wind resources are accessed, there still exists a great energy opportunity.
One company which has been working hard to start construction on a much larger offshore wind project, Vineyard Wind, is facing major political obstacles despite significant public support and impressive accomplishments in the first stages of development.
Vineyard Wind is a partnership of two companies, Avangrid Renewables, LLC and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. Together these companies provide offshore wind expertise and the financial capacity to build Vineyard Wind’s offshore wind turbines. As of 2019, Vineyard Wind has two proposed projects, one in Massachusetts (Vineyard Wind 1) and one in Connecticut (Park City Wind). Vineyard Wind 1 would be the first commercial-scale offshore wind project for the United States. The company has leased 160,000 acres 15 miles south of the Massachusetts island Martha’s Vineyard. Location was an important deciding factor for Vineyard Wind, as previous wind proposals for southeastern Massachusetts have failed largely due to public outcry over visibility of wind turbines on the horizon.
Before Vineyard Wind, the most significant attempt at offshore wind in the U.S. was the “Cape Wind” project. Developers of Cape Wind faced countless problems, most notably significant public opposition due to the “not in my backyard” attitude of local residents on Cape Cod and the Islands. These residents created the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound in order to stall and eventually kill the Cape Wind project. Part of the success of this group can be attributed to its founder, Bill Koch, homeowner in the Town of Barnstable, and oil and gas billionaire who got involved in fighting Cape Wind starting in 2002. His intention for delaying the project was “because he didn’t want to look at them.” In addition, Cape Wind was attacked by Native American tribes objecting to the project because it interfered with religious ground: “The Project will harm the Tribe’s religious, cultural, and economic interests by degrading the Nantucket Sound ecosystem and disturbing the unblemished view of the eastern horizon.” While Cape Wind encountered other issues in development, location was one of the most publicly controversial topics which limited its progress.
The decision to reposition the wind turbines further south and not visible from land has helped the Vineyard Wind 1 project progress as far as it has, generating strong public support. Vineyard Wind has also invested in outreach efforts for their plan, including multiple public information sessions to educate the residents of the Cape and Islands about the minimal impact the turbines would have. More than just an ideal location, the project has several other favorable aspects. According to their projections, Vineyard Wind 1 will generate renewable energy for more than 400,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts and also reduce carbon emissions by over 1.6 million tons each year. There will even be economic benefits, including 3,600 local full time jobs over the life of the project, beginning with construction, and energy cost savings for the first 20 years of power generation totaling $1.4 billion.
There are still concerns which arise from this project, however, including from one of Massachusetts’s largest industries: fishing. Vineyard Wind responded by creating an offshore wind fisheries representative, who meets with fishermen to communicate back their concerns and ideas.
Vineyard Wind is also considering the livelihoods of those without a voice, specifically endangered right whales. According to an agreement between Vineyard Wind and three NGOs; the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Conservation Law Foundation, “Vineyard Wind has made a $3 million commitment to develop and deploy technologies that ensure heightened protections for North Atlantic right whales and other marine mammals as the U.S. offshore wind industry continues to grow.” In 2018, the company partnered with conservation groups and hired a team of scientists to protect the critical species from any harm from construction and operation. Even more recently, Vineyard Wind hired Christopher Clark, a renowned bioacoustician with 40 years of experience researching influences of man-made sound on endangered species, focusing on marine mammals and whales. Clark has an optimistic view of the project: “I spent much of my career working at the intersection of marine science, industry, and regulation… I look forward to providing my expertise to an evolving industry that is new to the waters off the east coast.”
As of now, Vineyard Wind is at an interesting stage in its development. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Site Assessment Plan has been approved, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement public hearings have been completed, and the draft itself has been written. Where the project has reached a roadblock is in the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Management. Lars Pedersen, Vineyard Wind CEO, stated, “The FEIS will be published later than what was previously anticipated. While we need to analyze what a longer permitting timeline will mean for beginning construction, commercial operation 2022 is no longer expected.” The delayed release of the impact statement has upset many people who have begun to place blame on the current political climate of the federal government. Cape & Islands Representative Bill Keating targeted the decision attributing the push back to “political pressure from higher-ups in the Trump administration.” Arguments have also come from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren who says the Trump administration is slow walking the project.
The Massachusetts congressional delegation has even asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to begin an inquiry into how the Trump administration evaluates and permits energy projects and whether fossil fuel projects are prioritized over renewable energy such as Vineyard Wind.
Despite recent delays and controversial setbacks, Vineyard Wind continues to look forward to the release of the final impact statement and the start of construction. Work continues for the company, as they have just recently partnered with Greentown Labs, the largest cleantech incubator in North America. Together the two companies plan on launching an accelerator program on offshore wind innovations.
Vineyard Wind has many strong support systems that will help it grow. The question now is how long the project can be delayed until problems begin to arise. Politics have slowed the development of Vineyard Wind 1, but the dedication of the project team and its supporters to survive these delays will determine its overall success.
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Young, C. A. (2020, February 20). Right Whale Protection At Heart Of New Vineyard Wind Partnership. Retrieved from https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2020/02/20/right-whale-protection-at-heart-of-new-vineyard-wind-partnership
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