US Offshore Wind Projects Face Make-or-Break Moment

July 20, 2020 | 5:30 pm
Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Offshore wind is at a key juncture right now. And your voice can help take it to the next level.

You might have noticed that certain colleagues and I have often blogged excitedly about the brand new (to the US) renewable energy option poised to rise up off our shores. Offshore wind has been a long time in coming, and there is so much enthusiasm in so many quarters.

And no wonder, when you think about all it has to offer. Large amounts of pollution-free and carbon-free electricity generation, close to where it’s needed. A great complement to solar and land-based wind, and a strong winter resource. Savings for electricity customers, and great economic and jobs potential.

Given all that, a bunch of states have been making it clear that they want to see offshore wind as a substantial part of their electricity supply—and to see the offshore wind industry powering their economies and job growth. And a bunch of project proposals are answering the call.

It’s about one project, and a whole lot more

Several of those projects are slated to be in waters south of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. When Massachusetts issued its first solicitation for offshore wind projects, the winner (with a stunningly low price) was Vineyard Wind, an 800-megawatt project—meaning enough capacity to provide energy for more than 400,000 Massachusetts homes.

Vineyard Wind had already begun its permitting process, and last summer a federal approval for the project seemed imminent—until the Trump administration unexpectedly announced that it was going to do another step: a supplement to the draft environmental impact statement to look at cumulative impacts of Vineyard Wind and a bunch other offshore wind projects.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the US Department of the Interior agency in charge of permitting offshore wind and other energy projects off our coasts, recently published that supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for public comment. The SEIS “analyzes reasonably foreseeable effects from an expanded cumulative activities scenario for offshore wind development…” The “expanded cumulative” scenario includes Vineyard Wind and six other projects that have each gotten to certain stages in their development, for a total of more than 5,000 megawatts. And the SEIS looks at a range of alternatives to the project as proposed.

So why is this moment so important? It matters to the proponents of Vineyard Wind, as a key step toward getting federal approval by the end of this year and getting construction underway soon after. That timing matters to electricity customers, because important federal tax incentives are on the line.

And this moment matters to a lot more people because, given the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the long-standing inequities in our energy systems, we need the savings, the clean air, and the clean electrons that offshore wind can bring. And we need this new industry to be part of the economic rebuilding and job creation in the nearer term.

Getting this process right, right now, matters to all of us who want to see offshore wind happen. Because this step is about the facts of the matter, the findings of the extensive EIS process, including this supplement. But it’s also about the integrity of the process, about the importance of preserving a central role for science, and about ensuring that BOEM can do what it was made to do, under an administration that hasn’t always valued science.

Science and solutions

The BOEM SEIS catalogs their findings on possible impacts or benefits in an extensive collection of categories, from habitats and resources (terrestrial, coastal, benthic) to fauna (fish, invertebrates, marine mammals, sea turtles) to people (employment, economics, environmental justice, cultural and historical resources, tourism, fishing, navigation) and more.

BOEM projected “major” impacts in only a few categories, several of which have already been addressed by changes to the project since their original submission. In all other areas, BOEM deemed the impacts to be “moderate”, “negligible”, or even “beneficial”.

One issue for offshore wind is how we balance competing interests in the marine environment. One answer is to ensure compatibility, to the extent possible.

Vineyard Wind and the four other developers holding offshore wind leases in the Northeast have offered to do that by agreeing to a compromise for the layout of their projects: Instead of optimizing the spacing and location of each turbine, the developers agreed to 1 nautical mile (nm) by 1 nm spacing between turbines, and a fixed grid pattern, east-west and north-south.

Offshore wind lease areas in the Northeast, showing what a standardized 1×1 east-west/north-south layout might look like. (Turbine locations are illustrative only.) The Vineyard Wind project is in OCS-A 0501.

Putting the turbines that far apart will cut out a lot of clean energy generation (Vineyard Wind’s own estimate puts that loss at 30%), and that’s not something to be taken lightly. It will, though, create more space for boat traffic, including fishing, to make offshore wind turbines better neighbors. And it will offer hundreds of possible routes through the combined projects for traveling east-west, north-south, or diagonally.

The US Coast Guard, in its own analysis of options for safe navigation through offshore wind farms in the area, concluded that “a standard and uniform grid pattern with at least three lines of orientation and standard spacing,” with 1 nm between turbines, would be appropriate to “accommodate vessel transits, traditional fishing operations, and [search and rescue] operations” in the area.

One option added to the SEIS for consideration before these recent developments explored adding extra multi-miles-wide transit lanes that would cut through the designated offshore wind areas in several places. The Coast Guard’s findings and the developers’ unified commitment to that standard should make it clear that that option, known as “Alternative F” in the SEIS, is unnecessary. And putting substantially more area off limits to clean energy generation unnecessarily seems like the exact wrong way to go given our need for clean energy.

A sample transit lane through one of the lease areas (Vineyard Wind’s), showing one of the areas that would be off-limits to turbines under the SEIS’s “Alternative F”.

What you can do

Lucky for us, this comment period is a chance to communicate important considerations like that to BOEM, and to reinforce the importance of both offshore wind and science-based decision making. You can easily and quickly weigh in with written comments to BOEM.

Now’s a crucial time, because the comment period ends on July 27. And because US offshore wind has been a long time in coming, and we need it, like, yesterday.

Here’s how I put it in my comments to BOEM during one of the virtual hearings on the SEIS earlier this month:

In my almost three decades of working in the power sector, I have never seen an opportunity like we’re seeing now with offshore wind. The lengthy process to date, and now a strongly supportive SEIS, provide a strong basis for moving forward, with appropriate attention to mitigation. What comes of this process isn’t about just one project; it’s about every project in the queue behind it, and about fidelity to science, and facts, and good decision making.

After years of consideration of offshore wind in these parts, it’s time for us to act, and to begin to realize the tremendous benefits of offshore wind.

This is your chance to help make it happen.


Posted in: Energy

Tags: Offshore wind

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.