Offshore wind project propels Biden toward climate goals

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, Vineyard Wind has slowly accumulated the pieces needed to build America’s first large offshore wind project.

It signed a deal to provide electricity to Massachusetts. It received a transmission agreement to connect to New England’s power grid. And it agreed to set aside millions of dollars to compensate fishermen in Rhode Island and Massachusetts for losses associated with the project.

The one piece that has proved elusive is a permit from the federal government. And that all but arrived yesterday — with a release of an Interior Department environmental study that had been delayed for nearly two years by the Trump administration.

A final decision is expected in the next month, but the study’s release paves the way for work to begin as soon as this year. It also hands a major win to the offshore wind industry and Northeastern states that have built their climate strategies around the idea of installing turbines in the ocean.

The study’s release represents a sudden about-face from late last year, when Vineyard Wind withdrew its permit application just as the Trump administration was poised to issue a ruling.

But President Biden has moved aggressively in his first months to incorporate offshore wind into his wider climate agenda, signing an executive order to double offshore wind production over the next decade, installing a New York state official at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — the agency in charge of permitting — and reaccepting Vineyard’s application when it was resubmitted earlier this year.

“There were real concerns a couple months ago,” said Rep. Bill Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat who has championed the project, “about where this might be going, what the time frame would be, what the cost would be.”

He added, “This is tremendous progress and something I think will be welcomed not just with this particular project, but other projects off Massachusetts and down the east coast.”

Indeed, states along the east coast have outlined plans to build 29 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity in the next decade — nearly equal to the generating capacity of all New England power plants. But those projects have been hamstrung in recent years by permitting delays over Vineyard Wind.

The environmental study unveiled yesterday was originally scheduled to be released in 2019. But Interior requested that a cumulative impact study of other projects along the east coast be incorporated into its review, delaying its release.

Vineyard Wind is an 800-megawatt project. It will generate enough electricity to supply roughly 400,000 homes. In the study released yesterday, BOEM estimated the project would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.6 million tons annually, the equivalent of taking more than 300,000 cars off the road.

The project’s roots date back to a 2016 Massachusetts law that required the state to buy large amounts of offshore wind energy.

Kathleen Theoharides, the Massachusetts secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the commonwealth would not be able to meet a 45% reduction of emissions targeted for 2030 without building two large offshore wind projects and importing more hydropower from Canada.

“Today really feels historic because this was the project that launched the offshore wind industry on the east coast,” she said in an interview. “I think there is tremendous opportunity with all our clean energy deployment to build local jobs, to invest in local economies and to clean up our energy grid all while ensuring we’re protecting our environment.”

Coal has largely disappeared from New England’s electricity mix, but the region remains reliant on natural gas for its power needs. In 2019, natural gas accounted for almost half of electricity production in ISO New England, the six state power grid.

Offshore wind is particularly important for meeting the region’s climate goals because onshore renewable development is constrained by high land prices and battles over land usage, said Paul Hibbard, a former Massachusetts utility regulator who now works as a consultant.

“It is really difficult without all the megawatt-hours coming from offshore wind,” Hibbard said. “That number of megawatt-hours is desperately needed to allow for electrification of transportation and heating, which will increase electricity demand while decreasing the carbon impact of the power grid.”

He added, “The less offshore wind there is, the more generation from gas-fired, carbon-emitting power plants there will be. It’s almost a 1-to-1 offset.”

Vineyard Wind still faces significant hurdles. The project has been dogged by concerns from commercial fishermen, who fear the turbines will run their business aground. Many observers said they expect BOEM’s decision will be challenged in court by fishing interests.

Many of fishermen’s concerns were not addressed in the final study, said Annie Hawkins, who leads the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a fishing group.

BOEM’s study notes that federal regulators will be unable to conduct surveys of fish populations within the development area, but it offers no plan for how to address the issue, she said. Fishermen fear regulators may lower fishing quotas if the surveys are unable to determine an accurate estimate of fish populations. She also said BOEM has not committed to additional studies of the impacts on navigational radar for the 13 megawatt turbines proposed by Vineyard Wind.

Massachusetts has committed nearly $21 million to compensate fishermen for losses associated with the project. Rhode island has set aside $16.7 million for the same purpose. In its study, BOEM said it expected fishermen would adapt to the turbines and learn to fish the area successfully.

But fishermen say the opposite is true and that the amount of money set aside by states is inconsequential next to the damage done to their business.

Fishermen “want to know what the process is, they want to engage, they want to find opportunities for mitigation. This is just a mess,” Hawkins said.

“It feels like signaling to the public we mean it, we mean business on climate change. That is a good thing. That is a good thing to take action on climate change,” said Hawkins before adding: “It is not a good thing to do that in a way that induces risks.”

The final study contains several important revisions. One would create a no surface occupancy area in the northern portion of Vineyard Wind’s lease area — essentially ruling out six proposed turbine sites for the project. The move appears designed to appease concerns from the town of Nantucket, which had expressed concerns about the sight of the turbines from a historic lighthouse.

Such concerns tripped up the ill-fated Cape Wind project that met its end after years of objections from angry landowners. Vineyard Wind is 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and not easily visible from shore.

The study also incorporated a 1-by-1 nautical mile layout, which Vineyard Wind has proposed as part of an effort to address fishermen’s concerns over navigation. But the study’s preferred alternative did not appear to include plans for a transit lane, which had been pushed for by fishing interests.

Opponents have signaled they were likely to attack BOEM’s decision to reaccept Vineyard Wind’s permit application after the developer withdrew late last year. Critical to any legal challenge will be the thoroughness of the government’s review, said Michael Gerrard, a law professor at Columbia University.

“The major question is did the final EIS adequately explain any changes in the project and thoroughly identify the environmental impacts,” he said. “If they did a careful job, it should survive review.”