NEW BEDFORD — Amid all of the challenges that could face offshore wind power along the East Coast — legal disputes from commercial fishing advocates, construction plans altered by whale migrations, President Donald Trump’s emphasis on revitalizing fossil fuels and more — some promising news for renewable industry supporters arrived in mid-March.
That’s when a telling indication of how offshore wind power might fare under President Trump was delivered, after an uncertain, wait-and-see winter. Following months of silence about offshore wind, a statement by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke gave an early glimpse of the administration’s tone.
The newly minted secretary spoke March 16 about that day’s auction of wind power leases in federal ocean waters off North Carolina.
“The success of this lease sale reflects the continued interest of coastal communities to develop their offshore energy resources,” Zinke said in a prepared statement from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which held the auction.
“Renewable energy, like offshore wind, is one tool in the all of the above energy toolbox that will help power America with domestic energy, securing energy independence, and bolstering the economy,” Zinke added. “This is a big win for collaborative efforts with state, local, and private sector partners.”
The North Carolina auction was the country’s seventh — but the first under Trump — and it drew a winning bid of nearly $9.1 million from Avangrid Renewables. The Oregon-based company won the right to develop wind turbines on more than 122,000 acres of ocean waters off Kitty Hawk, N.C. Three other power companies took part in the auction, energy officials said.
Zinke’s statement was encouraging for many, including Catherine Bowes, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior manager of climate and energy for the Northeast.
“That was a very strong quote,” Bowes told The Standard-Times. “That was (Secretary Zinke’s) first public statement on offshore wind. It means game on, I think.”
GAME ON IS GOOD NEWS
A “game on” mentality for offshore wind development under Trump would be music to the ears of industry backers, who saw strong momentum build last summer, in the closing months of the Obama administration. Whether that momentum will continue has been an open question under Trump, who approved the long-controversial Keystone oil pipeline earlier this year and has expressed support for revitalizing the struggling coal industry, while placing less emphasis on renewable energies.
An executive order that Trump signed March 28, for example, called for a review of Obama’s Clean Power Plan and rolled back several of Obama’s climate change regulations, particularly those affecting the coal industry.
State Rep. Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) countered, though, that while the executive order could indicate a reduced nationwide focus on offshore wind leases in the long term, “Massachusetts is not going back to coal” and the state’s push for renewable power already is clear.
“I don’t know that anything (President Trump) does will change the decisions we’ve made in the state of Massachusetts on where we’re headed,” Haddad said in late March.
Haddad and several offshore wind backers have told The Standard-Times in recent months that Massachusetts’ new energy law; the millions of dollars already invested by turbine developers; and the industry’s potential for economic development all point toward a booming launch in months and years to come — no matter who is in the White House.
“We know that every new administration’s primary goal is jobs and economic growth. Offshore wind is primed to be a new, domestic industry in the U.S., generating skilled jobs in construction while also supporting domestic manufacturing as the industry’s supply chain matures,” said Thomas Brostrøm, North America general manager for DONG Energy.
The Danish energy giant is seeking to develop its Bay State Wind turbine project south of Martha’s Vineyard.
“We look forward to learning more about this administration’s plans for offshore wind,” Brostrøm added. “Additionally, we were encouraged to see Sec. Zinke’s recent comments, in which he noted that he considers offshore wind as a part of the all of the above energy strategy for the country.”
The offshore wind industry has been mature for more than two decades in much of northern Europe, but remains an infant in the U.S.
GETTING OUR FEET WET
Deepwater Wind’s five-turbine pilot project off Block Island, R.I., began the generation of offshore wind power in the U.S. late last year, when blades began spinning just off the island’s shores. Deepwater Wind developed the 30-megawatt project at a cost of about $290 million, according to BOEM.
Offshore wind is arriving at a crucial time for states including Massachusetts, where the looming closure of Brayton Point and other power plants could strain capacity.
With coming shortfalls in mind, the energy bill that Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed last August requires utilities to buy contracts for at least 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power between 2017 and 2027. Weeks after that bill-signing, federal officials including Zinke’s predecessor — former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell — visited a turbine blade-testing facility in Charlestown to formally launch the nation’s offshore wind plan.
And most importantly for New Bedford, representatives of all three offshore wind companies seeking to develop turbines south of Martha’s Vineyard visited the city in September and signed a letter of intent to stage operations at the Marine Commerce Terminal on New Bedford’s southern shoreline.
The $113 million, state-funded facility is managed by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) and is poised to become a hub for the offshore wind industry — should that industry weather some storms that could lay ahead.
Those storms could include disputes with commercial fishermen affected by turbine construction off Massachusetts, New York and elsewhere; and impacts to marine life such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which migrates up and down the East Coast.
Other uncertainties, related to the Trump administration, include whether state or federal governments will incentivize the industry with renewable energy tax credits. Bowes said that’s not a new question, though, as offshore wind developers planning billion-dollar projects have never been able to plan on government aid, and been able to move forward without it up and down the coast.
Brostrøm brushed off those concerns, as well.
“There are a few bills being proposed at the federal level that relate to wind energy tax credits, which we support — however, we will proceed with our projects with or without tax credits,” he said in late March.
“As an industry that’s still fairly young, but already showing tremendous potential, we think it’s an area that the federal government will see great return from supporting.”
REELING IN FISHERMEN
Another result of offshore wind’s momentum late last year was the hiring of longtime New Bedford fisherman and industry advocate Jim Kendall as the fisheries representative for Vineyard Wind (formerly OffshoreMW). The company is seeking to build its Vineyard Wind project south of the islands, and Kendall spent much of his winter talking to local fishermen and other ocean users.
“The major concern, of course, is the loss of prime fishing grounds, in a lot of cases,” Kendall said. “South of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket is a major concern for the squid industry, for one, and the herring industry might have a problem.”
Kendall, also executive director of New Bedford Seafood Consulting, is a former scalloper with more than 50 years of experience in the industry.
He said the regional squid fishery extends south of Martha’s Vineyard all the way to New York, where offshore wind developers could face legal challenges from fishing industry advocates.
“That area they’re talking about off of New York is of particular concern to the scallop industry, as well as the squid,” Kendall said. “That’s a huge resource of scallops down there.”
The Fisheries Survival Fund, which represents much of the Atlantic scallop industry, was the lead plaintiff in a suit filed in December against BOEM and Jewell. The suit came days after Statoil Wind U.S. bid more than $42 million in a BOEM auction, winning the rights to develop up to nearly 200 turbines in ocean waters about 11 miles south of Long Island.
Closer to home, Kendall said many commercial fishermen routinely pass through areas around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket that could be affected by turbine construction and placement.
“If we don’t find a way to allow for a straight course, it could be like a slalom course to avoid these towers,” Kendall said. “(OffshoreMW) has already asked me if I could show them more or less what the route could be.”
BOEM is requiring offshore wind developers to have both a fisheries representative, who speaks for the fishing industry, and a fisheries liaison, who speaks for the wind power company.
All three wind power companies seeking to build south of the Vineyard have long since began surveying in their leased waters. Kendall said some fishermen may have to find new areas for their fixed gear as turbine development progresses and more users share the same waters.
“We did have one gear interaction during (Vineyard Wind) survey work, that we were able to bring to a good ending conclusion,” Kendall said. “We were able to help the fisherman retrieve his gear.”
Kendall said a “streamer” pulled by a survey vessel caught a rising line from lobster gear, and accidentally towed the gear away from where it had been set.
Kendall said he contacted the gear’s owner and told him about the snag.
“He apparently found his gear, because he never came back to me with any kind of complaint,” Kendall said. “That’s the way these things hopefully will work.”
Bowes, who has supported offshore wind legislation in several states, said the National Wildlife Federation often gets questions about turbines’ impacts on marine life and birds. She said it’s largely a matter of scale.
“First and foremost, we use energy in this country, and all energy has some impact on wildlife,” she said. “It’s important to take a comprehensive look at all the sources of energy and recognize that there are significant impacts to wildlife from fossil fuels. ... Offshore wind has significant potential to have much less impact, when it’s done right.”
Bowes said the federation and other groups are working with industry representatives to move projects out of sensitive coastal zones and farther offshore, “where the data suggests bird impacts are minimal.”
But moving offshore can put projects into whale habitats, particularly the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which migrates up and down the East Coast.
Deepwater Wind worked with the federation and the Conservation Law Foundation, Bowes said, to start turbine construction later in the year, after April, when high whale concentrations are reported off New England.
And work stopped if whales were nearby, she said.
“They had protocols in place for when they need to shut down the construction, the piling, if there were whales within a certain radius of the site,” Bowes said. “It was literally hanging out, waiting for a whale to move on through — but it worked.”
‘GOING FULL BORE’
Stephen Pike, CEO of the MassCEC, has said he expects wind activity at the terminal, “will be going full bore come spring, and probably through the summer and the fall,” as developers prepare to bid for utility contracts.
Brostrøm said Bay State Wind has completed survey work and soon will use high-tech buoys to measure wind profiles and waves.
“And, yes — we expect to participate in the state’s (request for proposal) process” this year, he said.
Matthew Morrissey, Deepwater Wind’s Massachusetts vice president, said in December that federal impacts on the industry — at least for areas currently leased — could be “largely behind us” with developers’ contracts already on the books and larger market factors at play.
“The activity for several years now has been led by states, who are forced to deal with looming capacity shortfalls in regional markets, and as a result, need to develop new sources of scalable energy that can replace old, inefficient plants with new, highly efficient and renewable energy capacity generators,” Morrissey said. “Industry and states really are the market drivers for offshore wind’s emergence today.”
Kendall said issues surrounding offshore wind development are continuing to unfold, and urged “any mariner out there” to contact him with concerns.
And he cautioned that, when it comes to installing turbines south of Martha’s Vineyard, the very winds that make the sites so attractive could also prove problematic in construction and maintenance.
“It’s a tough environment. At times, it’s impossible to be out there,” Kendall said. “The wind doesn’t always cooperate.”