Ocean grid key to explosive offshore wind growth

We need to discard old ways of thinking, build necessary infrastructure

OFFSHORE WIND could be as beneficial to Massachusetts economy as life sciences, but not without transmission infrastructure to scale the industry.

The life science sector grew by over 60,000 jobs in the 15 years leading up to 2022, a growth rate of 131 percent vs. 6.9 percent over the same period for the broader Massachusetts labor market.  Offshore wind is poised for similar growth, with up to 58,000 jobs needed by 2030 to build the first round of offshore wind projects.   But this growth will only be realized if offshore wind farms can connect to the grid, which is not a given.

The current transmission system – centered on fossil fuel and nuclear plants located relatively close to population centers – is already straining to accept renewable energy that supplied just 12 percent of New England’s electricity in 2022, with far less than 1 percent of supply from the pilot-scale Block Island offshore wind farm.

To reach meaningful amounts of renewable energy, New England needs an ocean grid designed to integrate the next round of offshore wind farms, and the ones after that.  We need leadership to cut through the bureaucratic processes that inhibit long-term thinking, and we need to commit to building the necessary infrastructure to address climate change.  With billions of dollars available from the federal infrastructure bill, broad acceptance of the need for new transmission, and budding regional collaboration, there is a generational opportunity that New England states must seize to start building the Ocean Grid.

The Massachusetts decarbonization roadmap finds that New England will need 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2050 – equivalent to the capacity of all power plants currently operating in the region.  This goal will be near-impossible to reach without putting transmission first.  Initial offshore wind farms connecting to southeast New England are using up available grid connections, and concerns about a spaghetti bowl of power cables in the seabed and multiple shore crossings reflect the drawbacks of connecting each project to shore individually, without planning.

Continuing the current approach will force major upgrades to the onshore grid costing hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. The extended, contentious process to build new onshore transmission could stall the industry for a decade, based on experience with prior large onshore transmission projects in the region.

Backing into expensive delays would slow greening of the grid and undermine climate benefits of electric vehicles and heating.  Supply chain companies and economic development will be attracted to other regions – or countries – providing greater certainty of steadily increasing offshore wind development.

Building a well-planned, independent ocean grid for offshore wind will reduce costs and minimize impacts on the environment and shoreline communities.  Analysis from the Brattle Group released earlier this year found that planning transmission to achieve the Biden administration’s 100 gigawatt offshore wind goal would produce $20 billion in savings, cut ocean cabling by half, and reduce shore crossings and onshore upgrades by 60-70 percent.

In order to achieve their own ambitious offshore wind goals, European nations are building a grid in the North Sea.  Closer to home, New Jersey recently completed an initial procurement of offshore wind transmission, and will soon launch its second.

Within New England a proposal for phased development of an ocean grid is taking shape.  In September 2022, New England states invited comment on a modular offshore wind integration plan to build high-capacity, independent transmission systems for offshore wind.  These systems would function like power strips in the ocean, receiving power from multiple wind farms and avoiding a multitude of extension cords snaking to shore.  Over time the power strips would be linked offshore, creating a networked ocean grid that would increase reliability of offshore wind and of the onshore grid.

Realizing the benefits of an ocean grid in New England will require continuing regional collaboration, engagement with the federal government, and an embrace of flexibility.  In January, states submitted an initial application to the US Department of Energy to secure newly-available infrastructure funding that could provide up to $250 million for each of the first three ocean grid segments.

By May 19,, the deadline for full applications to the Department of Energy, states should describe a clear process and timeline for competitive procurement of transmission and offshore wind.  Establishing a coordinated regional timeline will provide enhanced clarity to stakeholders and industry, and minimize competing procurements that diminish competition. (In a Rhode Island offshore wind solicitation this year that overlapped with one in New York, Rhode Island only received responses from one bidder.)

Last, Massachusetts should preserve the ability to connect wind farms selected in the next offshore wind solicitation through independent, shared transmission if doing so would reduce costs and environmental impacts.

Meet the Author
Benjamin Franklin once said that “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”  Failure is not an option in the face of climate change and the significant economic potential of offshore wind. New England states must take bold steps to start building the ocean grid that will scale offshore wind and rise to the challenge of climate change.

Peter Shattuck is the New England president for the transmission developer Anbaric Development Partners.