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.
Massachusetts led the effort to get large-scale offshore wind projects started. On May 23, 2018, Vineyard Wind was selected by the Baker administration and state utilities to build an 800-megawatt offshore wind farm off the southern coast of Martha’s Vineyard. In 2018 Rhode Island and Connecticut additionally committed to purchase 704 megawatts of offshore wind from waters south of Martha’s Vineyard. On June 21, 2019, New Jersey announced the winner of an 1,100 megawatt solicitation. And on July 18, 2019, New York announced two winners of its first two wind procurements, one for 816 megawatts and another for 880 megawatts.
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.”
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