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Commercial offshore wind farm could be template for future projects

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith March 30th, 2021
For business


Offshore wind could add more clean energy to power grids.

A review by the Department of Interior approved the first commercial-sized offshore wind project on the U.S. east coast. The environmental impact statement from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) supported the construction of Vineyard Wind.

This wind project will add 800-megawatts off the Massachusetts coast. It will be capable of powering up to 400,000 homes.

Advocates of offshore wind hope that this milestone will speed up other projects planned along the Eastern Seaboard. Vineyard Wind is the first major facility to seek approval from the federal government. Supporters believe this is the reason for the repeated delays. The guidelines laid down by the BOEM could now serve as a template for the regulatory process.

“We look forward to reaching the final step in the federal permitting process and being able to launch an industry that has such tremendous potential for economic development in communities up and down the Eastern Seaboard,” commented Lars Pedersen, chief executive of Vineyard Wind.

There are currently two small offshore wind projects operating off the east coast. These have a combined capacity of 42 megawatts. The Block Island facility off Road Island has been in operation since 2016. A new 12-megawatt wind farm off the Virginia coast came online last September.

But developers plan to expand offshore wind generation over the next 15 years. As part of their green energy targets, Eastern Seaboard hopes to add 29 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2035. This includes 9,000 megawatts for New York, 7,500 megawatts for New Jersey, and 3,200 megawatts for Massachusetts.hoo

Several stumbling blocks for the project

The Vineyard Wind project ran into a series of delays. One came from local fishermen who worried that their concerns were ignored. In addition, the BOEM announced a delay in its environmental review process. This was originally scheduled to end in late 2019. Critics claimed this delay was an attempt by the Trump administration to stall clean energy developments.

In a concession to the fishing industry, Vineyard Wind announced in December that it would use larger turbine blades than planned. This cut the number of turbines from 104 to 62, allowing more space for fishing boats to move through the area. But the change of plans led to a further delay of about three months in the approval process.

“The completion of the final EIS for Vineyard Wind is an important step forward for the project, the industry, and, just as importantly, the regulators,” said National Ocean Industries Association President Erik Milito. “Excessive litigation (has) blocked offshore wind projects in the past. The robust environmental review of Vineyard Wind provides the framework for the final decision and paves the way for future reviews of wind projects throughout the Atlantic.”

Others are more cautious. Some say every new project could create resistance from fishermen. Many in the fishing industry worry about the impact of turbines on their fishing grounds. There is already conflict over the next project in line to gain federal approval. The next project is a 132-megawatt South Fork facility off the New York coast. Analysts S&P Global Platts remarked that “continued hurdles and delays” are likely.

Transmission trouble raises questions for offshore wind

Although the regulatory process for offshore wind projects has improved, the sector still faces challenges if it is to grow. These include how to establish a transmission network to bring the gigawatts of energy from sea to dry land. Another challenge is distributing energy across multiple states and energy regulators.

Power generators and distributors are responsible for moving wind energy from offshore turbines to the onshore electricity grid. This means that each project has to develop its own transmission plan. Industry observers worry that this approach pushes up costs, which will scare away financial investors. “The current ‘generator-lead’ approach that states have used to date…is unsustainable,” argued Stuart Nachmias, CEO of the transmission unit of New York utility Con Edison.

A transmission-led approach that includes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, grid operators, and energy regulators could help meet the goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2035. According to the Business Network for Offshore Wind advocacy group, Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts will have to raise $20 billion in infrastructure investment to achieve that target.

 

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views and at the Canadian Labour Institute.

[Tom Buysse]/Shutterstock