European firm pitches huge wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard

Source: By Jay Fitzgerald, BOSTON GLOBE • Posted: Thursday, November 12, 2015

A major European energy company is proposing what could be North America’s largest offshore wind farm 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, outlining its plans less than a year after the proposed Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound suffered a stunning financial setback.

Denmark-based DONG Energy A/S, the world’s largest developer of offshore wind farms, Monday said it would build up to 100 giant wind turbines, generating as much as 1,000 megawatts of electricity — more than double the output Cape Wind had proposed for its site off Cape Cod. The Danish company recently acquired one of the leases for a stretch of ocean that the US government has designated for wind farms. It has dubbed the local operation Bay State Wind.

Company officials, seeking to distinguish their plans from the controversial Cape Wind project, pointed to DONG Energy’s long track record in building ocean wind farms. They also noted the turbines would be much farther out to sea, potentially drawing less opposition from oceanfront homeowners than Cape Wind.

“We have the experience and we have the expertise,” said Thomas Brostrom, the company’s North American general manager said in an interview Sunday.

DONG Energy faces lengthy Massachusetts and US permitting processes that include environmental reviews and approvals for where its power lines would come ashore. Once those approvals are in hand, DONG Energy said, it would take about three years to build the wind farm, and the first phase could include 30 to 35 turbines and be in service by early next decade.

Other than getting the transfer of the lease approved by the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, DONG Energy has yet to file any applications for the projects with the federal or state government.

The group that battled the Cape Wind project since its inception has adopted a much softer tone for the Danish project and others proposed in the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard.

“It’s absolutely a better plan” than Cape Wind, said Audra Parker, president of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. “We find these areas to be far more superior” for offshore wind farms, Parker said.

DONG Energy would not reveal the size of its windmills, but Brostrom said they would be “barely visible on a clear day” from the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard.

DONG Energy, with annual revenues of $11 billion, said it would be able to finance the construction and not be dependent on investors. Cape Wind has struggled to maintain financing for its $2.6 billion project and suffered a potentially fatal blow in January when two utilities, Eversource Energy and National Grid, pulled out of agreements to buy 75 percent of its electricity.

Meanwhile, a Rhode Island company, Deepwater Wind, has leased the ocean waters adjacent to the DONG Energy location and has said it hopes to build as much as 1,200 megawatts of power from 200 turbines. The company is currently constructing the nation’s first offshore wind farm, a small, five-turbine, 30-megawatt facility, closer to Block Island.

A third company, OffshoreMW of Princeton, N.J., backed by financial powerhouse the Blackstone Group, has a lease in nearby waters, but a spokesman said it was too early in the company’s design process to release details.

The Massachusetts site, Brostrom said, has similar conditions to the North Sea, where DONG Energy has built several wind facilities, including winds that can run above 20 miles per hour and relatively shallow ocean waters of 130 to 160 feet.

“It’s not daunting to us. We know what we’re doing,” Brostrom said.

Representative Patricia Haddad, Democrat from Somerset and one of Beacon Hill’s biggest supporters of offshore wind, said the location seemed ideal for a large group of turbines. “They’re calling it the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind’,” said Haddad, who received briefings from the developers of all three sites and recently toured offshore wind farms in Denmark.

DONG Energy developed the world’s first offshore wind farm in the early 1990s, off the coast of Denmark, Brostrom said, and has since constructed more than 30 percent of all offshore wind-energy capacity. It currently has 14 offshore wind farms under operation, four projects under construction, and 12 others in various development stages, all in European waters. Last year alone, DONG Energy invested $1.2 billion in offshore wind projects, according to the company.

The Massachusetts proposal is DONG Energy’s first foray into the North American market, but the company is a long way from being close to construction.

In addition to the permitting process, company officials said, they are looking to Massachusetts lawmakers to adopt a provision they said is critical to their project proceeding. Haddad is pushing an energy bill that would allow utilities to enter into long-term contracts for wind, hydro electricity, and other sources of clean energy. Brostrom emphasized the project depends on those long-term contracts so the company has assurances it can sell its electricity into New England’s power markets.

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has expressed interest in offshore wind projects but has also voiced reservations about mandating long-term energy contracts without having more specific cost figures in hand.

Haddad said the state needs to diversify and rebuild its electricity supplies, especially with the pending shutdown of the 680-megawatt Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.

The cost of the windfarm project is expected to run into the billions, but Brostrom could not provide specific figures. Nonetheless, he said the Danish company is “highly confident” it can pay for the wind farm itself and “not one penny” would be needed from other investors to get construction under way.

Brostrom also said his project would be able to sell electricity at a lower price than the 21 cents per kilowatt hour that Cape Wind was planning to charge in its first year of operation. He said improved turbine technologies and a maturing wind-farm industry in Europe have contributed to driving down the costs of materials and equipment to build wind farms by about 30 percent in recent years.

Because its turbines would be built so far out to sea, Brostrom said the DONG Energy wind mills wouldn’t be visible to most Cape and island residents who have vehemently opposed the Cape Wind project over the years. Cape Wind would have plunked 130 turbines only five miles off the Massachusetts coast, in between Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard in Nantucket Sound.

The project, however, might face questions from wildlife experts. Some have recently expressed concern about any effects a wind farm in that area might have on the activities and habitats of whales.