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Offshore Wind Project South Of Martha's Vineyard Clears Last Regulatory Hurdle

The country’s first large-scale offshore wind project has cleared its final significant regulatory hurdle, bringing the long-anticipated U.S. offshore wind revolution one step closer to reality.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Interior Department announced it had approved Vineyard Wind’s plan to build an 800-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. This so-called “Record of Decision” comes two months after the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) completed a final environmental review of the project.

This “is a significant milestone in our efforts to build a clean and more equitable energy future while addressing the climate emergency,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said during a press briefing Tuesday. “Offshore wind is a critical component of the president’s priorities, and it’s an important opportunity for growth in the United States.”

The $2.8 billion project, known as Vineyard Wind 1, will consist of 62 turbines spaced about a mile apart and each standing about 837 feet above the water’s surface. Using cables buried beneath the ocean floor, the power from these turbines will plug into the New England grid onshore in Barnstable.

The project is expected to produce enough renewable electricity to power 400,000 Massachusetts homes every year, while also saving ratepayers billions of dollars and reducing annual CO2 emissions in the state by about 1.68 million metric tons.

Though the Record of Decision was the last major federal hurdle, the project still needs three minor federal permits before construction can begin. Vineyard Wind CEO Lars Pedersen said he expects those to come through in next few weeks, adding that the company is on track to have all financial plans and construction contracts in place later this year. The massive turbines are slated to be installed in early 2023 and should begin delivering renewable energy to the grid by the end of that year.

Standing against the backdrop of a massive wind turbine blade at the Wind Technology Testing Center in Charlestown, Pedersen said that today’s announcement “is not about a single project. This is about an industry — an industry that is going to revitalize waterfronts up and down the eastern seaboard; create well-paying jobs; and deliver clean, affordable energy to households while the states are transitioning from fossil and nuclear power plants to a green future … And we’re very proud that we can do our part.”

Local environmental groups throughout New England also praised the announcement.

“Responsibly developed offshore wind will be the workhorse of our decarbonization efforts in our region – and it holds enormous potential to grow the economy, meet our energy needs, and create equitable economic benefits for decades to come,” said Susannah Hatch, director of New England for Offshore Wind, a coalition group of local environmentalists, businesses, academic institutions and labor unions.

Francis Pullaro, executive director of the non-profit environmental group RENEW Northeast said the news from BOEM “comes with a feeling of elation for citizens, companies, environmentalists, and communities invested in a sustainable future for Massachusetts and for the nation.”

She added that it is “notable and commendable that BOEM considered viewpoints from local communities, labor, Native American tribes, and environmentalists — ensuring that renewable energy will not come at the expense of the coastal and marine environment.”

Getting to this point was not easy or inevitable.

After winning Massachusetts’ first round of offshore wind project bids, Vineyard Wind — a joint venture between Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners — submitted its project application to the federal government in 2017. The review process was supposed to take two years, but in the summer of 2019, the Trump administration unexpectedly hit the pause button. Several other East Coast states had announced plans for large wind farms off their coasts, and with so many projects in the pipeline, federal officials said they wanted to assess the cumulative impacts of the whole industry before signing off on Vineyard Wind.

The delay threatened to upend Vineyard Wind’s project timeline and several key contracts, and called into question the future of the offshore wind industry in the U.S. The company won’t say exactly how much the delay cost, but Pedersen says the price-tag was in the millions.

The project was put back on track soon after President Biden took office. Unlike the Trump administration, which never looked fondly on the offshore wind industry, the Biden administration has said it’s going all in on this renewable resource as part of its dual goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and creating green jobs.

In March, federal officials set a national goal of installing 30 gigawatts (or 30,000 megawatts) of offshore wind capacity in the water by 2030. According to the White House, hitting this target would create thousands of jobs, avoid 78 million metric tons of CO2 emissions and provide enough clean electricity to power about 10 million homes in the U.S. every year.

It’s an ambitious goal for a nascent industry that has lagged far behind its European counterpart. The U.S. currently has seven turbines in the Atlantic Ocean that generate about 42 megawatts of power. Europe, by contrast, has more than 5,000 offshore turbines generating about 25 gigawatts of power.

“It’s a really big deal to be the first state to get utility-scale offshore wind off our coast,” said Kathleen Theoharides, Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs at a press conference Tuesday. “Today is a big day for Massachusetts, a big day for the country and a really big day for showing that climate action can be a boon for the economy.”

While federal officials and environmental groups applaud today’s news, not everyone in the region is celebrating. The Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), which represents the New England fishing industry, said it “condemns in the strongest possible terms the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) issuance of a Record of Decision.” The group called the ecological mitigation plans outlined in the Record of Decision “poorly defined” and said it “satisfies neither the public interest nor the law.”

“For the past decade, fishermen have participated in offshore wind meetings whenever they were asked and produced reasonable requests only to be met with silence,” said RODA executive director Anne Hawkins. “From this silence now emerges unilateral action and a clear indication that those in authority care more about multinational businesses and energy politics than our environment, domestic food sources, or U.S. citizens.”

Both Vineyard Wind and federal officials say they have taken the fishing industry’s concerns into consideration and have used them as the basis for project modifications — Vineyard Wind, for instance, altered the spacing and orientation of its turbines at RODA’s request. But according to the fishing industry, these changes aren’t enough. Citing safety and navigational concerns, fishermen had asked for more spacing between turbines and a 4-mile transit lane through the federal lease area.

While today’s announcement likely marks the end of the fight over Vineyard Wind there are several others in the federal review pipeline right behind it. According to a report from The American Clean Power Association, East Coast states have so far pledged to build 25 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2035.

Earlier this year, BOEM announced plans to open new federal lease areas off of New York and promised to complete reviews for 16 wind projects by 2025.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

The New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal will serve as the onshore staging ground for Vineyard Wind's project. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal will serve as the onshore staging ground for Vineyard Wind's project. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

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