The federal government this week released its final environmental assessment of what might be the first large-scale offshore wind project in the US. That matters for that project, certainly. But more importantly, it matters for the many offshore wind projects at earlier stages, along the East Coast and elsewhere. In each case, what matters is a process that allows for science-based decision making, steers things toward fewer and lesser impacts, ensures proper stakeholder engagement, and sends clear signals about next steps.
One offshore wind project
First, there are the particulars about the one project, its possible environmental profile, and the assessment. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) released this week by the US Department of the Interior‘s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) examines the Vineyard Wind project proposed for the waters south of Cape Cod and east of Long Island.
This project milestone was originally supposed to have been reached two years ago, but was delayed first by the prior administration, then by the developer late last year (to allow it to assess the possibility of using larger turbines that have become a possibility). The new administration used the years of study already carried out to get to this important stage.
The FEIS examines the proposal’s environmental profile; that is:
impacts that could result from the incremental impact of the Proposed Action [the original proposal] and action alternatives [other options explored] when combined with past, present, or reasonably foreseeable activities, including other future offshore wind activities.
From its possible effects on a broad range of species and habitats, to how it might interact with people, on the water and where the cables come ashore—environmental justice and commercial fishing, navigation and tourism, “cultural, historical, and archeological resources”—all were included within the scope. BOEM’s conclusion was that, in most areas, the effects will be “moderate”, “minor”, “negligible” or even “beneficial”.
So that leads to what form of the project, and what provisions, reduce negative effects as much as possible while preserving the many benefits from a project like this. Based on its analysis, BOEM has put forth in the FEIS a “Preferred Alternative” that:
…includes mitigation and monitoring measures to avoid or reduce impacts on existing ocean uses and environmental and socioeconomic resources associated with construction, operation, and maintenance activities across the various resource areas analyzed in this document.
Those measures include some stipulations that the project developer had already agreed to, and others developed through the review process that included a range of other government agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Native American tribes.
In all there are 101 provisions—some required, based on the interagency consultations, and some prospective, for the next step (see below). They include, for example, requirements around the pile-driving used to put the foundations in place, to minimize exposure and harm to marine mammals and sea turtles. Around communicating with the fishing industry and with Native Americans about construction plans. Around collecting data on birds and bats and having lights on the towers that come on only when airplanes go by, to minimize disturbance. Around reporting whale sightings, “vessel strikes,” or boulder moves during construction.
There are also tens of millions of dollars in funding for the fishing industry in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and other states, to compensate for potential lost revenue from changes to fishing and habitat.
In terms of the turbine layout, BOEM is recommending the 1×1 nautical mile spacing that the prospective offshore wind developers in the area had agreed to, an East-West/North-South orientation for the turbines, and no additional transit lanes beyond the hundreds that the grid layout offers boats—all pieces we had supported in comments earlier in the process. BOEM has proposed nixing six prospective turbine locations at the project’s northern end to “reduc[e] visual impacts and minimiz[e] conflicts with commercial fishing boats.” The agency also confirmed, though, that the larger turbines the developer was considering “fall within the design envelope” analyzed in a parallel process the prior administration had added in, meaning the full project (800 megawatts) can fit within a smaller footprint.
A whole offshore wind industry
That’s what the milestone means for that one project. Then there’s what this step means for the US offshore wind industry as a whole, and for all of us counting on some powerful additions to our clean energy supply mix.
One is that this is a sign of the new administration’s commitment to clean energy, and to offshore wind, but also to science and process. BOEM had been studying the project since the developers submitted their construction and operations plan in 2017, but it took the Biden administration to get the assessment out the door.
Another is that precedents are being set: the 1×1 spacing and East-West/North-South orientation, for example, and the requirements for engagement and compensation, for data collection and reporting. Those matter for all the other projects in the queue, because now there’s a metric against which to measure their own commitments, and a sample process to build on.
Those, combined with an administration that gets the importance of offshore wind, may help make sure that subsequent projects face thorough and timely processes.
So where does that leave us? For Vineyard Wind and BOEM, the next step is the “Record of Decision”, which can happen as soon as 30 days from now. The ROD will be the just-about-final sign-off, and will include the required stipulations that came from that interagency process, plus other “mitigation and monitoring measures” identified.
The project developers will then need to figure out the final technical details (since offshore wind turbines keep getting more impressive), nail down the financing, and get to it. Vineyard Wind, say the developers, “is expected to reach financial close in the second half of 2021 and begin delivering clean energy to Massachusetts in 2023.”
Meanwhile, other projects are coming up behind. The comment period concluded last month for the draft environmental impact statement for one off Long Island’s South Fork. The largest project proposed to date has filed its construction and operations plan. Two projects involved in the largest single state procurement to date are finalizing their state contract.
Like this week’s FEIS release, each of these is a step. What matters is that they are also more signs that the US offshore wind journey is now well and truly underway.