After two decades of false starts and lengthy delays, Massachusetts is poised to get the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm with the approval Tuesday by the Biden administration of a massive energy project in federal waters some 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.
The decision is an important milestone for the Biden administration’s effort to battle climate change by moving the nation’s energy policy away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources. It is also validation of a push for wind power that started in Massachusetts some 20 years ago with the Cape Wind project that was proposed for waters in Nantucket Sound and eventually collapsed in the face of stiff opposition.
The Vineyard Wind project approved Tuesday would generate up to 800 megawatts of electricity from 62 giant turbines, enough to power at least 400,000 homes. Construction is expected to begin before the end of the year, once the developers have secured financing for the nearly $3 billion project. They hope to be generating electricity from a portion of the project by late 2023, with construction ending the following year.
“It’s not just the approval of a project, but it really is the birth of an industry,” said Dennis Arriola, chief executive of Avangrid, an energy company that is developing Vineyard Wind in a partnership with Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. “It’s really historic. It shows that when a private and public partnership want to get something done like this, it can be done.”
The approval will also accelerate an arms race among at least a half-dozen East Coast states for the renewable energy and the jobs that these projects bring. New York and New Jersey, for example, are pursuing their own ambitious offshore wind goals. Massachusetts also has a second utility-scale wind farm project under development, Mayflower Wind, which is proposed for nearby waters south of the Vineyard.
The Vineyard Wind turbines, manufactured by General Electric, would be massive, some 800 feet tall, and would send electricity along underwater cables to the regional power grid near Hyannis. While Boston-based GE will manufacture the major components in Europe, as many as 2,000 workers will be employed locally during the construction of the project, and dozens will work in operations and maintenance after the wind farm is complete.
Amanda Lefton, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said Tuesday that her agency’s approval of Vineyard Wind should send an important signal to the largely European-based offshore wind industry.
“We know we need to create greater certainty for offshore wind as we move forward,” Lefton said. “We are seeing this investment happening already in our supply chain in the United States, which is why today’s milestone is so critical in getting this progress moving forward.”
The federal agency’s review of the Vineyard Wind project had slowed considerably under the Trump administration, in part because of concerns raised by the fishing industry. But the Biden administration made it clear Vineyard Wind would be put on a fast track as part of a broader effort to shift the country’s grid to cleaner sources of electricity. The new administration wants to see as many as 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity — the equivalent of more than 36 additional wind farms of Vineyard Wind’s size — built off the US coastline by 2030.
The new federal permit will help developers secure financing, as will a federal tax credit program. Perhaps most important: The Vineyard Wind developers won contracts with three major utilities to provide electricity to Massachusetts ratepayers from the wind farm, through a process established by the state Legislature in 2016.
While long expected, the federal approval of Vineyard Wind was still hailed by industry supporters as a watershed moment in the country’s move to a greener energy supply, while it was again criticized by fishermen who worry about disruption to their fishing grounds.
Representatives for the fishing industry say the towering turbines pose navigational hazards to their boats, even when spaced one mile apart — as is planned with Vineyard Wind. The Responsible Offshore Development Alliance issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the BOEM decision. The fishing industry group accused the agency of failing to consider adequate mitigation measures and of taking a scattershot, politically motivated approach indicating that it cares more about “multinational businesses and energy politics” than domestic food sources provided by local fishermen. RODA said prime fishing grounds and other parts of the ocean “are at risk of becoming fields of steel and fiberglass.”
Until now, the only two offshore wind farms built in the United States have been small pilot projects; one is off Block Island, R.I., and the other off Virginia Beach.
Mayflower Wind, a partnership owned by Shell, EDP Renewables, and Engie, won Massachusetts contracts in 2019 to build a wind farm that would be similar in size to Vineyard Wind. Both Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind have agreed to use a state-funded terminal in New Bedford for staging during construction.
On Friday, the Baker administration launched a third bidding competition, this time for up to 1,600 megawatts of additional offshore wind capacity, essentially doubling what has already been awarded. In addition to Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind, two other development teams with lease rights in the area south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket could participate: Equinor (formerly Statoil) and a partnership between Eversource and Danish energy company Ørsted.
Governor Charlie Baker issued a statement saying the Vineyard Wind project will “prove Massachusetts developed a successful model for developing offshore wind energy.” Baker’s energy secretary, Katie Theoharides, hosted Vineyard Wind and GE executives on Tuesday at the state’s wind blade testing center in Charlestown to celebrate the milestone.
The administration has made getting a low price the primary reason for picking a winner in all three contests for utility contracts so far, raising concerns among some in the industry that state officials aren’t doing enough to prioritize economic development. The administration said ratepayers could see modest savings on their electric bills over the life of the 20-year contracts, when the contracts were awarded to Vineyard Wind in 2018; Mayflower Wind was required to beat Vineyard Wind’s price.
These energy prices are a stark contrast to the relatively high rates that were offered by Cape Wind, which faced opposition in part because of its potential impact on ratepayers.