As Governor Charlie Baker rattled off his successes before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, he reflected on his administration’s climate accomplishments: two major offshore wind farms in the works, plus a power line through Maine to bring cheap hydroelectricity here from Canada.
In his speech, Baker mentioned how these three clean-energy projects, when complete, together would represent about 30 percent of Massachusetts’ electricity needs. It sure sounded impressive.
Missing from the governor’s speech: the bad news.
CommonWealth magazine had just confirmed, in an interview with Baker’s top energy official, an unhappy rumor: Federal permitting for Vineyard Wind, the first major offshore wind farm in the US, will be delayed yet again — likely until the end of the year, after the elections. Vineyard Wind was close to the end zone last summer, before the Trump administration’s Interior Department called a timeout.
Also, on Monday opponents of the nearly $1 billion Central Maine Power transmission line said they had filed more than 75,000 signatures to stop the project in a statewide referendum — well over the amount they needed. Incumbent power plant owners in Maine have made it clear they won’t stand idly by while a Massachusetts-orchestrated super-highway gets built for low cost juice from the north.
Together, these developments could spell trouble for two of the Baker administration’s signature energy initiatives. Made possible by an energy bill passed by the state Legislature in 2016, the utility contracts that would finance Vineyard Wind and the Central Maine Power line, known as New England Clean Energy Connect, have been championed by the Baker administration at every turn.
Both projects share a common investor: CMP parent Avangrid, a Connecticut company controlled by Spanish conglomerate Iberdrola.
Let’s take the brouhaha in Maine first. The nearly 150-mile CMP proposal was actually a runner-up, behind the much-maligned Northern Pass power line that Eversource wanted to build through New Hampshire. But state permitting issues quickly doomed Northern Pass, and Massachusetts pivoted to Maine.
Governor Janet Mills is on board, as is the Conservation Law Foundation. But plenty of residents don’t want this giant extension cord to Massachusetts through their backyard. The critics have deep-pocketed allies: incumbent fossil fuel generators, including Calpine and Vistra. Two state permits are stuck in the appeals process. And now, a referendum likely looms.
Avangrid seems undeterred by the threat of a ballot question, and there’s some question about whether it can withstand a legal challenge. A spokeswoman said the company still expects to start construction on the Maine power line by the end of June, as long as the remaining permits come through.
Avangrid CEO Jim Torgerson also has a headache at the other end of New England, south of Martha’s Vineyard. That’s where Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners want to build Vineyard Wind, a massive offshore wind farm that could power more than 400,000 homes.
The project depends financially on federal tax credits that expired at the end of last year; Torgerson has said he hopes to persuade the IRS to allow the tax credits to remain intact because the delays are out of his company’s power to control.
The Department of Interior halted the Vineyard Wind review at the eleventh hour last August, to embark on a more systemic review of all the wind farms planned for waters up and down the East Coast and their collective impact. (A second Massachusetts wind farm, to be developed by a Shell-EDP joint venture known as Mayflower Wind, is much further behind Vineyard Wind in the permitting.) Many hoped for a resolution by mid-2020. So much for that idea.
Federal regulators say they’re just doing their job, partly in light of concerns raised by commercial fishermen worried about the navigation hazards these projects could pose. But supporters see politics at work. The latest example: a letter this week from most of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, Democrats all, accusing the Republican administration of applying a double standard: whisking through fossil-fuel proposals while slow-walking renewable energy projects. Fueling those theories: President Trump’s public expressions of distaste for offshore wind.
The troubles that Vineyard Wind face have unsurprisingly raised concerns in the rest of the offshore wind industry. Former Interior secretary Ryan Zinke seemed like a fan. Current Interior boss David Bernhardt, maybe not so much.
Governor Baker, also a Republican, wants Massachusetts to play a leadership role in curbing greenhouse gases that contribute to a warming planet. These two signature clean-energy projects are a key part of that vision. But their future might be out of his hands.