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Biden’s administration should charge up the offshore wind industry

The permitting and leasing bottlenecks could end under the new president

The GE-Alstom Block Island Wind Farm stands in the water off Block Island, R.I.
The GE-Alstom Block Island Wind Farm stands in the water off Block Island, R.I.Eric Thayer/Bloomberg

Few industries stand to benefit more from the Biden administration’s arrival than clean energy, and the nascent offshore wind sector in New England could get a long-awaited boost as a result.

So far, construction has yet to start on any major offshore wind farm in the United States, as projects before the Trump administration were mired in permitting delays. Now, with a sympathetic ally in the White House, the floodgates could be poised to open.

President-elect Joe Biden has set aggressive targets to reduce greenhouse gases, by, for example, rejoining the Paris climate accord, which Trump abandoned, and pushing the electric-power sector to be carbon-free by 2035. Those goals will be tough to pull off without offshore wind.

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“You’re poised for a big explosion of offshore wind growth,” said Theodore Paradise, a senior vice president at the power line developer Anbaric, in Wakefield.

Industry executives hope a Biden-controlled Department of the Interior will ease the permitting bottleneck. Equally important: restarting auctions for offshore zones that have apparently been on hold under the current Interior secretary, David Bernhardt.

And the person Biden appoints as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is more likely to approve clean-energy friendly policies. Another important change: Biden is expected to put more faith in the career bureaucrats at Interior and its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, as well as the Department of Commerce, which should bring needed stability and consistency to agency reviews.

“The prospect of an administration that is much more interested in fostering zero-emissions generation as part of a carbon [reduction] strategy is very good news for people who are in a zero-emissions generation business,” said Seth Kaplan, external affairs director for the Mayflower Wind joint venture.

The offshore wind industry, funded in large part by European conglomerates, had been off to a strong start at the outset of President Trump’s term, despite his public disdain for wind turbines. Prior Interior secretary Ryan Zinke was seen as warm to wind power, sometimes even a vocal champion. But the mood chilled considerably after Trump replaced him with Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist.

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Most notably, Bernhardt put the Vineyard Wind project on hold in mid-2019, just as it was about to get its final federal permit. The project was slated to be the first major offshore wind farm in the United States, with the potential to power more than 400,000 homes. Just 10 days ago, Vineyard Wind was hit with yet another permit delay. (The likely final approval date has been pushed to mid-January.)

And there hasn’t been an auction for offshore wind leases since December 2018, despite the surprisingly strong interest in the last auction.

Bernhardt ostensibly put Vineyard Wind on hold to undertake a broader review of the cumulative impact of various wind proposals along the East Coast. But the move sent shudders through the nascent industry, as the line behind Vineyard Wind started to grow.

“The industry was a little incredulous,” Paradise said. “It was hard not to see what was happening as political.”

Among those hoping to move forward: Eversource and Ørsted, which recently disclosed three of their joint-venture projects had been delayed. Their South Fork project off Long Island won’t go online until 2023, a year behind schedule, and their Revolution Wind and Sunrise Wind projects south of Massachusetts won’t meet their original connection targets of 2023 and 2024, either.

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The only offshore wind farms built so far are small: Ørsted’s five-turbine array off Block Island started spinning in 2016, and Dominion Energy’s two turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach were completed this past summer but are still awaiting a technical review at the BOEM.

Unlocking the pent-up demand for wind power could have significant consequences for Massachusetts. Several European operations set up corporate offices here in anticipation, including Ørsted (opened its Boston office in 2015, then known as DONG Energy), Vineyard Wind (an Iberdrola-Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners venture), Mayflower Wind (a venture funded by Shell, EDPR and Engie), and wind turbine manufacturer MHI Vestas. General Electric, another manufacturer, is headquartered here. And the state invested more than $100 million in New Bedford to build a terminal geared for offshore construction that Vineyard Wind and Mayflower plan to lease for their projects here.

Massachusetts once had first-mover advantage in the arms race for industry investment. In 2016, the Legislature authorized auctions of 1,600 megawatts of capacity to finance offshore wind farms; Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind eventually won contracts for that business. Another 1,600 megawatts could go out to bid over the next few years, and state lawmakers are considering adding more.

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However, states such as New York and New Jersey have adopted even more aggressive targets in recent years — and stand to reap the economic benefits. For example, the Norwegian company Equinor disclosed a proposal on Nov. 12 for a wind tower manufacturing plant at the Port of Albany on the Hudson River, to serve wind farms planned off Long Island.

Taken together, the various multibillion-dollar projects could support tens of thousands of jobs along the East Coast over the next decade.

“It’s an opportunity for a lot of capital to come into this space, for a lot of jobs to be created,” said Peter Rothstein, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council. “Expediting doesn’t mean it’s not going to be done in a careful and thoughtful process. But we should be able to get rid of the dragging of the feet” at Interior.

The aggressive expansion has alarmed many in the fishing community who see their already precarious way of life endangered by these giant towers; Bernhardt, the Interior secretary, has cited the need to balance the interests of the fishing and wind industries.

Annie Hawkins, executive director of the fishing industry-backed Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, wants more emphasis on that balance. She notes the analysis commissioned by Bernhardt has the potential to benefit the wind industry in the long run, by mitigating future legal risks.

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“There are really a lot of steps that were skipped that we need to go back and get right, to make sure we are balancing both uses,” Hawkins said. “We’d be doing a lot better if we were doing this all together from day one.”

The wind industry won’t need to appease just fishermen under a Biden administration. Alicia Barton, who until recently led New York’s clean-energy efforts, said Biden has made it clear that union labor, equity, and environmental justice should also be strong points of consideration.

Still, Barton remains optimistic these challenges can be overcome: Biden’s 2035 goal for a carbon-free power sector is five years earlier than New York’s, one of the most aggressive states in this regard.

“It’s inarguably ambitious,” said Barton, who now runs FirstLight Power, a Burlington operator of hydroelectric, solar, and energy-storage plants. “Offshore wind looms large as one of the biggest levers they can pull to make progress on their 2035 clean-electricity goal.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.