New England needs to go all in on offshore wind

Region is falling behind as other states push ahead

THIS WEEK, the Environmental League of Massachusetts launched a campaign to significantly increase the amount of offshore wind built off New England’s coast and deepen coordination in the region.  We have formed the New England for Offshore Wind Coalition, a diverse group of stakeholders from environment, business, labor, environmental justice, and academia who are committed to working together to make New England a vibrant hub for offshore wind.

Policymakers today face many hard questions as they grapple with rebuilding a healthy, low-carbon economy that works for all.  But one answer is easy: New England must go all-in on responsibly developed offshore wind.

In 2016, Massachusetts led the nation with the first offshore wind procurement legislation.  Today, our target (3.2 gigawatt, or GW) is a mere echo of the ambitious targets, long-term strategic plans, and economic investments of states to our south—including New York (9 GW), New Jersey (7.5 GW), and Virginia (5.2 GW).  New York in particular is rapidly claiming the prime, finite wind lease areas off of our coast.

New England is overdue in sending a clear market signal to the offshore wind industry that we warrant long-term investments. Not a single New England state has a long-term roadmap for offshore wind, yet each is dearly hoping that somehow, offshore wind will be the workhorse for achieving their climate goals. A recent analysis from the Brattle Group forecasts that offshore wind will be the single largest source of New England’s clean energy by 2050, providing almost 50 percent of our entire power supply with nearly 50 GW. Unfortunately, the sum of all of New England’s commitments today is less than 6 GW. How will we get where we need to go?

It is time to raise our sights. It is time to plan. There are compelling economic arguments for doing both.  Across New England, building almost 50 GW of offshore wind would marshal over $100 billion in private capital and create tens of thousands of jobs.  For context, Massachusetts’ first two offshore wind projects, the 0.8 GW Vineyard Wind 1 and Mayflower Wind, are forecast to create over 9,000 jobs.  As Massachusetts reels from the loss of 19,000 clean energy jobs in March and April alone, offshore wind jobs cannot come soon enough.

Today, lawmakers across New England are weighing many difficult trade-offs and expensive economic recovery proposals. By contrast, there are some nearly costless steps states can take to support the conditions for offshore wind to create jobs and build back tax bases.  For example, here are three simple steps that jump-start economic activity in Massachusetts: Double our procurement target to at least 6.4 GW in commercial operation by 2035;  Follow the lead of other states and publish a procurement schedule so the private sector can begin planning; And move our next solicitation from 2022 to 2021 to accelerate private investment.

It is similarly inexpensive to deepen collaboration among officials of the six New England states. Improved coordination and alignment are preconditions for bringing offshore wind to scale in an efficient, cost-effective way. The more we coordinate, the better the outcomes.  After all, the six New England states share an interlinked electric grid, workforce, and ecosystem.  A cohesive New England strategy invariably improves results for pricing, port infrastructure, workforce development, stakeholder engagement, wildlife protection and environmental mitigation, equity in economic participation, and transmission infrastructure.

Finally, New England states must consider how to meaningfully improve racial equity. It is already clear that offshore wind will create material cost savings to low income ratepayers, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. For example, the Commonwealth forecasts that ratepayers will save $5.1 billion over the 20-year contracts with our first two projects, Vineyard 1 and Mayflower Wind.  Offshore wind also creates significant health benefits to residents living near fossil fuel power plants, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. ISO-New England forecasts that between a sixth and a third of all the fossil fuel power plants in New England could retire in the next decade. As offshore wind comes online, dirty power plants will switch off, for good.

But we can do more to advance racial equity. Lawmakers should adopt policies to drive racial diversity and create employment pathways for people of color in offshore wind. The Environmental League is currently studying options and will be advocating for such measures in the next legislative session. One opportunity that stands out in our research is to amend a state’s offshore wind request for proposal process to include points or stated preferences for projects that embrace minority economic participation.  In Massachusetts, the “Massport Model,” demonstrated by the Omni Hotel project, and the buildout of the Encore casino are two recent examples of this strategy at work.

Meet the Author
2020 marks the start of the last, best decade to reverse course from a climate catastrophe.  2020 is also marked by our state’s nation-leading unemployment rates as COVID-19 upends our economy and deepens already gaping racial inequities.  Offshore wind can be New England’s key to a green and just recovery: a rare chance to jumpstart a healthy, low-carbon economy that works for all.  Will our state leaders rise to embrace the opportunity?

Elizabeth Turnbull Henry is the president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.