An important piece of the energy future of Massachusetts and New England lies somewhere in the water south of Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s up to federal officials who’ve slowed its progress to make sure the opportunity doesn’t slip away.
Vineyard Wind is a $2.6 billion plan for an 84-turbine, ocean wind farm 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Once built and powering electricity — plans are to go online in 2022 — the turbine field is expected to produce up to 800 megawatts of electricity.
That’s enough to power some 400,000 households — well more than either Lori Trahan or Seth Moulton represent in their congressional districts.
A wind farm on such a scale is unusual in the world of renewables, at least in New England. Here those are more typically represented by small clusters of turbines capable of powering a few blocks — not a few communities.
So the stakes are high, especially in light of constraints on Massachusetts leaders to come up with a blend of energy sources that will dilute the state’s reliance on coal and natural gas. The state looks to eventually draw as much as 20% of its energy from offshore wind — a significant piece of which could be represented by Vineyard Wind.
The latest barrier to this long evolving project blew up this past week, when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced plans for a deep dive into the impact of this and similar developments that will draw out permitting until next March. Among the questions are those relating to the effect on fisheries and commercial fishing, which are serious concerns, to be sure, albeit ones that have gotten significant attention.
Gov. Charlie Baker told Commonwealth Magazine that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt pointed to a list of similar projects on the boards as reason for a time of reflection. The Empire Wind project, south of Long Island, would draw power from 60 to 80 turbines. It and the Sunrise Wind project, planned east of Long Island, would together generate up to 1,700 megawatts of power. Those are but two examples.
“He said, ‘For me to move forward without doing some sort of analytics around the cumulative impact of all this would be a mistake, because I’m only going to get one shot at this,” Baker said. “At this point, he’s the regulator, he’s the decision maker. I’m taking him at his word on this stuff.”
Stretching the timeline is a disappointing, potentially disabling blow for Vineyard Wind -- so much that Baker and his counterparts in the governor’s offices in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine sent a letter to Bernhard and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asking them to step it up. One worry is that federal tax credits that are sunsetting will expire before construction can begin, though Baker is hopeful the project will still be included in the program.
An even bigger concern is that something else is lurking behind this recent announcement, perhaps signaled in President Donald Trump’s derision of renewables and wind energy as “dreams … which, frankly, are not working all that well.” For what it’s worth, the U.S. wind industry that isn’t working that well last year added nearly 2,700 new turbines capable of producing 7,600 megawatts of power in a dozen states.
It hasn’t been lost on some that slowing offshore wind development stands in sharp contrast to the government’s posture toward oil and gas. For those industries, it is relaxing oversight for exploration and drilling. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, said to be weighing a run against Sen. Ed Markey, calls it a double standard.
We’ll hope this is not the government choosing up sides in energy, and that this delay really just amounts to the Interior Department getting a fix on which way the wind is blowing.
The wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard, for the sake of the Massachusetts economy and the energy infrastructure of New England, is far too important to allow to wither on the vine.