The Biden administration on Monday announced the completion of an environmental review of Vineyard Wind, a crucial step toward the long-delayed $2.8 billion offshore project becoming the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s final environmental impact statement was released a little over a month after the agency’s new director, Amanda Lefton, pledged to conduct a “robust and timely” review of Vineyard Wind, picking up where the permitting process left off in December.
Late last year, Vineyard Wind’s developers withdrew their proposal to build a wind farm about 12 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard as the plan ran into delays under the Trump administration after commercial fishermen raised concerns that the giant turbines would be hazardous to their work.
When Joe Biden became president, the developers asked the bureau to resume its review.
Vineyard Wind has contracts with utilities to generate 800 megawatts of power, or enough electricity for more than 400,000 homes. Those contracts date back to a 2016 clean-energy law passed by the Legislature, which essentially kicked off an arms race between East Coast states for offshore wind proposals.
The Vineyard Wind development team recently reached a deal with Boston-based General Electric to use 62 of GE’s Haliade-X towers for the project. These are the most powerful offshore wind turbines on the market, with blades that can reach as high as 800 feet above the water.
The project still awaits approvals from other federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service, officials said.
Vineyard Wind’s chief executive, Lars T. Pedersen, said after the release of the report that “2021 is poised to be a momentous year for our project and the broader offshore wind industry.”
”We look forward to reaching the final step in the federal permitting process and being able to launch an industry that has such tremendous potential for economic development in communities up and down the Eastern seaboard,” Pedersen said in a statement.
Advocates of renewable energy and lawmakers lauded the report, but commercial fishing groups reiterated their opposition to the plan for the wind farm, saying the federal government has not addressed their concerns.
Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, said there hasn’t been enough opportunity for people in the fishing industry and the public to become informed and weigh in on the proposal.
“Fishermen care about what the environmental impacts are going to be, and the impacts to their businesses, and to fish stocks, and to the ecosystem at large,” Hawkins said. “And they care about being engaged in the project so that they can bring their input, their knowledge to create acceptable means of mitigation. That just hasn’t happened.”
Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, said it’s “very concerning . . . that the impacts for commercial fishing still are extremely under-considered.”
“We’ve had a heck of a year already because of COVID, and the closing of restaurants, and processing houses, and export markets,” Brady said. “Now, as if it weren’t bad enough, we’re going to be put off our fishing grounds. . . . But no one is offering fair and equitable compensation for the loss of fishing grounds.”
Environmental organizations praised the report, which provides “clear, practical, and repeatable standards and guidance” for operating an offshore wind farm, said Mary Anne Hitt, director of national campaigns for the Sierra Club.
“Our country has a real opportunity along its coasts to produce low cost, safe energy that will provide living wage jobs, invest in local communities, and combat the climate crisis, while also protecting our ocean ecosystems,” Hitt said in a statement. “The Bureau’s decision today will go a long way in turning these opportunities into a reality from Maine to Florida.”
US Senator Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety, said the environmental review shows “the Biden administration is putting wind back in the sails of this vital new industry.”
“We urge the administration and all relevant stakeholders to continue working together for the responsible development of wind off our coast, in order to energize the economy, provide affordable electricity, and move us further into a climate-safe future,” Markey said in a statement.
US Representative William Keating, a Bourne Democrat who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said the report’s completion “is a clear demonstration of the Biden Administration’s commitment to green energy, green jobs, and tackling our climate emergency.”
“Southeastern Massachusetts has been laying the groundwork for years to lead on offshore wind in the same way our region has [led] for decades on marine research,” Keating said in a statement.
Katie Theoharides, Governor Charlie Baker’s energy secretary, said Monday was “a pretty historic day, because we have been waiting for the permit for this project for a number of years now. It’s the first utility-scale offshore wind project to get off the starting blocks.”
Vineyard Wind is now slated to get its final federal permit within months, she said. The project should help set a template for federal permitting that will enable the next offshore wind proposals to be reviewed much more expeditiously.
“There’s a lot more clarity for other projects that are going behind Vineyard in the permitting pipeline,” she said.
Vineyard Wind, a joint venture of Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, would be financed through contracts with three major Massachusetts electric utilities.
Construction could begin by early next year, and the project could start generating power by the end of 2023.
Next up for Massachusetts: the similarly sized Mayflower Wind project, south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, being developed by Shell and the Ocean Winds joint venture. That project is essentially two years behind Vineyard Wind, with commercial operation projected for 2025.
State officials are in the early stages of another bidding contest, which could award as much as 1,600 megawatts of contracted power to a bidder that would build even more windmills offshore.
And a climate bill that the Legislature is close to finishing would add another 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind contracting authority on top of that.