Vineyard Wind limbo is chance for reset
Federal timeout on offshore wind could last a long time
THE INTERIOR DEPARTMENT’S Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, the agency that issues permits for offshore wind projects in federal waters, has called a timeout on the rapidly expanding offshore wind industry in the US. The bureaucratic delay poses an unwelcome challenge for the Vineyard Wind project, the wider offshore wind industry, and states depending on offshore wind to address the threat of climate change. The delay also invites an important question: What is the most rational, far-reaching approach to develop the massive source of renewable energy off New England’s coast and beyond?
Massachusetts and other northeastern states plan to rely on offshore wind to meet most of their renewable power objectives in the next decade. The development of up to 30,000 megawatts (enough to provide power to more than 15 million homes) in the Atlantic will require the largest expansion of the North American transmission grid in decades. At this scale, this new development of electric transmission is infrastructure, similar in scope and size to highways and bridges.
As infrastructure, such a large project must be carefully planned. Connecting offshore power projects to onshore connection points will entail laying thousands of miles of cables undersea and underground. This will disrupt the fishing industry, impact coastal towns, and affect sensitive environmental areas. A great effort is required to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse impacts and fairly compensate those affected.
If this massive project is undertaken properly, however, it will allow the northeastern states to reduce or even eliminate their dependence on fossil fuels for electricity generation. If done right, the northeastern states can also become the technological vanguard of ocean energy development and head off risks that could stifle offshore wind. If done right, a well-planned ocean grid can make it easier and cheaper for generators to connect to collector stations in the ocean, a model that in Europe has led to subsidy-free bids for renewable energy, instead of the long-term, fixed-price contracts that are being issued by the states now.
These initial offshore procurements made it appear that offshore wind was taking off in the Northeast. Then in August came the BOEM announcement that: “Comments received from stakeholders and cooperating agencies requested a more robust cumulative analysis.”
“Cumulative” impact may refer not only to the 4,300 megawats already selected by the three states, but also to the additional 15,000 to 20,000 megawatts that will be procured when the more expansive visions of the states come to fruition. In New York, for example, Governor Cuomo established a target of 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind which is now in legislation. With expansion from “a few” projects of 800 megawatts each, to scores of projects that will add up to 20,000 to 30,000 megawatts, the importance of coordinating cable installations from the federal lease areas to shore becomes critical to mitigating risk for the environment and the regional fishing industry.
BOEM has created an unsettling limbo that may last a few months, or a few years. A “cumulative impact” study for 20,000 megawats or more will probably take at least six months, and the subsequent comment period will probably last another six months. That takes us to September 2020, in the midst of presidential election season.
While this is an outcome no one in the Northeast desires, it is what we confront. Those who support the large-scale development of wind should use this opportunity to revisit the “best practices” of jurisdictions that have been successful in its development. Two such examples exist in the United States: Texas sought to promote development of high-quality wind areas in north and west Texas defined as “Competitive Renewable Energy Zones” and initiated a master transmission plan, which saw the successful development of almost 20,000 megawatts of wind, hundreds of miles from its urban centers. The transmission was planned ahead of the generation being built, allowing for the most cost-effective system designed to absorb and transport large amounts of wind reliably. In California, a somewhat similar effort was made to bring the wind from the mountainous Tehachapi area to Los Angeles. Again, transmission was designed ahead of generation.
The BOEM timeout is a concern, but in the timeout is an opportunity. It provides a chance for Massachusetts and the other Northeastern states to ensure that power is delivered to shore in a manner that reduces environmental and fisheries impacts, increases competition, and reduces costs. Instead of letting each generator do what is most convenient for its own project, states can now develop thoughtful plans for the entire offshore program.As Massachusetts considers expanding its procurement goals, the timing is perfect for its Department of Energy Resources to issue an RFP specifically for offshore transmission infrastructure. It is exactly the step necessary to reassert Massachusetts’ leadership in the development of an offshore industry and would be consistent with BOEM’S goal of taking a cumulative review.
Done right, on the other end of the BOEM timeout, Massachusetts can lead the nation in the responsible and smart development of this amazing offshore resource.