Group: Buffer area would cause removal of ‘significant number’ of turbines from projects
An organization that represents and lobbies for the wind industry has warned that a recommendation from federal scientists to limit turbines in offshore lease areas to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale could threaten the commercial viability, efficiency and utilities contracts for some projects.
Climate change is affecting the whale and its prey, according to researchers. And offshore wind, which the Biden administration has called on to address the climate crisis, might add to existing stressors from the noise created during construction and operation, to the turbine impacts on currents and prey distribution.
In a letter first published by The Light last month
, NOAA scientist Sean Hayes proposed establishing a “conservation buffer” zone or turbine-free area overlapping with wind development planned in Southern New England. But the American Clean Power Association (ACP), which represents the wind industry, said such a buffer would cause the removal of a “significant number” of turbines from several projects.
“NOAA is eager to turn this hypothesis into regulatory action,” ACP told regulators, referencing Hayes’ letter. “The purposeful limiting of lease buildout would restrict the amount of renewable energy generation that can be achieved … inherently making the permitting process less efficient and more labor intensive.”
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and NOAA Fisheries are currently working on a strategy that would guide developers on avoiding and mitigating offshore wind impacts to the right whale.
It does not reference a buffer zone, but its section on possible mitigation measures mentions “restrictions on surface occupancy.” A BOEM spokesperson previously told The Light that the draft contains “key research questions” that could help inform decisions, “including those regarding buffer zones and no surface occupancy mitigations.”
ACP’s 14-page letter
, to which developers contributed, tells the federal agencies that restrictions on surface occupancy would unduly limit the number of turbine locations in a lease and could “hamper the commercial viability of projects … the ability to meet existing power purchase agreements, and the capacity to bid competitively in future solicitations.”
The organization said the draft strategy overstates potential impacts of offshore wind on the whales, and understates anticipated benefits (such as decelerating climate change), which in turn could delay permitting and slow the U.S. in achieving its goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.
An ACP spokesperson declined an on record interview with one of the letter signatories, telling The Light that the letter is the organization’s official position on the draft strategy.
Commercial viability has already been raised as an issue for at least one Massachusetts project: Commonwealth Wind. The company has cited a combination of economic factors like inflation and the war in Ukraine as jeopardizing its ability to finance the project.
This month, the company, which is owned by Avangrid, asked Massachusetts regulators to scrap existing agreements with utility providers and open a new round of bidding as the wind farm “cannot be financed and built” under existing contracts, State House News Service reported.
Another project, Mayflower Wind, supported Commonwealth Wind’s request without stating its project was at risk, but eventually said it was committed to moving forward with the contracts it signed earlier this year, with CEO Francis Slingsby stating it could meet the critical climate and energy needs and overcome the “current extraordinary economic challenges.”
In addition to echoing some of ACP’s points on the proposed whale strategy, Michael Brown, the CEO of Ocean Winds North America (which is half-partner in the Mayflower project) suggested in a letter to the agencies that some of the draft language could threaten the financing of projects.
The draft strategy states that BOEM can suspend operations or require project revisions if it finds that previously authorized activities are no longer sufficient to protect the species or can cause irreparable harm, which Brown said is inconsistent and could be “especially alarming” to the banks financing the multi-million dollar projects.
“[S]omeone lending hundreds of millions of dollars to advance a clean energy project needs certainty that project approvals are solid and literally ‘bankable,’” he wrote. “At the end of the day, it is essential that the permitting process allow, as required by federal law, for optimal use of the lease areas to generate the maximum amount of clean, fossil-fuel displacing, energy that can be responsibly developed and built.”
Removing wind turbine locations, he wrote, should be the last resort after all other mitigation measures have been used.
Contrasting with developers’ views, a group of scientists established by the Secretary of Commerce to advise NOAA Fisheries on marine mammals expressed concern that the draft did not consider a near-term measure like the buffer zone proposed in Hayes’ letter, which recommended a 10-nautical mile buffer in an area abutting the western edge of the Nantucket Shoals and overlapping with planned wind development.
“From the [group’s] perspective it would appear prudent that BOEM evaluate a reduction in its projects’ overlap with some of the highest documented densities of North Atlantic right whale aggregations in New England waters,” wrote James Powell, chair of the Atlantic Scientific Review Group, in a letter last month. “We have similar concerns about proposed projects in the [right whale] migratory corridor to the west and south of the Nantucket Shoals area, and yet we see no reference to a timely evaluation or implementation of these actions in the Strategy.”
The advisory group is made up of 12 members, including Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Environmental NGOs, the fishing industry and other stakeholders also submitted feedback with varying views, highlighting how federal regulators must balance advancing the ambitious renewable energy goals set by the Biden administration, while also meeting their longstanding responsibilities and requirements under federal law to manage and protect the marine environment.
The Massachusetts/Rhode Island wind area contains several leases. Asked for confirmation on what lease area or areas Hayes was referring to for a buffer, a NOAA Fisheries spokesperson said by email that the letter was written while BOEM was in the process of developing alternatives for the Mayflower Wind environmental impact statement (EIS), but that it also “has relevance for other future projects.”
NOAA Fisheries submitted a public comment to BOEM for the Mayflower Wind project before Hayes’ letter that included a similar recommendation that the agency include a project alternative of no turbines in a portion of the lease, particularly the northern portion, due to concerns with right whale impacts. BOEM expects to publish a draft EIS including alternatives early next year.
A Mayflower Wind spokesperson said the company did not issue an individual comment to BOEM and NOAA on the draft right whale strategy, but did contribute to ACP’s letter.
Asked if turbine restrictions for the Mayflower Wind project would affect the commercial viability and power purchase agreements, the company, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.
Per a BOEM spokesperson, the federal agencies plan to issue the final right whale strategy next spring.