Offshore wind farm in limbo

Courtesy Deepwater WindWind turbines off Block Island, Rhode Island,  generated the first energy produced offshore in the U.S. Deepwater Wind is planning offshore wind projects to serve multiple East Coast markets located 15 or more miles offshore, including New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, and New Jersey.

BOSTON – Plans for the country’s first utility-scale offshore wind farm remain on hold, and state leaders and environmental groups are calling on the Trump administration to speed it along.

Vineyard Wind, a $2.8 billion, 84-turbine wind farm planned 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, was delayed last month by federal regulators amid concerns about the impact on commercial fisherman. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said additional review is needed in light of the concerns raised by “stakeholders and cooperating agencies.”

Vineyard Wind would generate enough energy to power over 400,000 homes, representing about 20% of electricity consumed in the state, according to its designers. A law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2016 requires the state to have at least 3,200 megawatts of electricity provided by offshore wind by 2035 as part of a shift to renewable energy sources.

Baker, who recently met with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in Washington, D.C., to push for the project’s movement, told reporters Wednesday that he remains confident about its future. The Republican said he believes the federal government is committed to a March 2020 deadline to wrap up its review.

“He’s the regulator, he’s the decision-maker,” Baker said. “I’m taking him at his word on this stuff.”

In a statement, Vineyard Wind said the project remains viable despite the delays and urged the government to finish its work quickly.

“The project is poised to kick-start a new offshore wind industry that promises industrial growth along with new manufacturing and blue-collar employment,” the statement read.

Environmentalists say the project is vitally important to the future of energy production in the U.S. and reducing carbon emissions that scientists say are contributing to a warming planet.

“Offshore wind energy is the biggest mitigation against climate change that’s available in the United States,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. “The environmental community supports a cumulative review of the potential impacts but not at the expense of this project, at the final hour.”

The wind farm would reduce Massachusetts’ carbon emissions by over 1.6 million tons per year — roughly the equivalent of taking 325,000 cars off the road, the company said.

Vineyard Wind is one of several large-scale offshore wind projects being considered along the Atlantic coast. Its developer also has submitted bids for a second, 800-megawatt project off Massachusetts.

Deepwater Wind’s Block Island wind farm, which consists of five turbines, was the nation’s first when it launched in 2016. The company currently has other offshore wind projects in development with Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, and New York.

President Donald Trump, a vocal critic of wind power, has cast doubt on its viability. He has focused on supporting coal and other fossil fuel industries.

“We’re the No. 1 energy producer in the world,” Trump said during a press conference at the end of a G-7 summit in France. “I’m not going to lose that wealth on dreams, on windmills, which, frankly are not working all that well.”

Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat, has accused the Trump administration of trying to stymie the renewable energy project as part of an election year appeal to his political base.

“The Trump administration’s delay of offshore wind means a delay on unleashing thousands of jobs across our state, a delay in Massachusetts leading in developing the next frontier of clean energy, and a delay that our planet cannot afford to reduce global warming pollution,” Markey said in a statement. “That is unacceptable.”

Despite Trump’s disparagement of wind power, his own administration is touting its benefits.

The Energy Department recently reported the industry is employing a record 114,000 people, and turbines have added more than 15 gigawatts to the national power grid since Trump took office in 2017. That’s roughly enough electricity to power half of New York state, its report said.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former Texas governor and Trump appointee, has praised the benefits of wind power, which supplies roughly 20% of electricity in his home state.

Time is ticking for the Vineyard Wind, which must begin generating electricity by early 2022 in order to fulfill contracts with the three utilities buying its power. If it doesn’t begin construction by the end of this year, the project could lose critical federal tax subsidies.

Commercial fisherman have expressed major concerns about offshore windmills, which would tower nearly 600 feet above the water line.

“Commercial fishing families, as stewards of the ocean, are concerned that a new industry is developing at a rapid pace without adequate science and risk management,” the Gloucester-based Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership said in a recent statement.

Vineyard Wind said it has taken steps to protect the marine environment, including fisheries monitoring and an agreement to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Massachusetts faces a looming energy crunch with an expected loss of more than 10,000 megawatts of power over the next few years as nuclear and fossil fuel plants shut down.

In 2017, the state’s last and largest coal-fired plant — Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset — went dark. The Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, which produced about 15% of New England’s energy, was shut down last June.

In 2018, about two-thirds of Massachusetts’ energy came from natural gas, with the remainder from nuclear and renewables, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Besides energy demand, the state is required to reduce its carbon footprint by 25 percent of 1990s levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050, to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, a federal law the state adopted years ago.

A 2016 ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court mandated stepped-up efforts to hit those benchmarks.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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