For decades, Salem played a critical role in the region’s electricity grid, with a massive coal-fired power plant that helped keep the lights on. But now the city has a new role to play, as a staging ground for the construction of offshore wind turbines.
Developer Vineyard Wind unveiled plans on Thursday to lease a waterfront site once used to store coal, making Salem the next major port in Massachusetts for the nascent offshore wind industry after New Bedford. Vineyard Wind intends to assemble components of wind turbines there, for towers that will go up in waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Crowley Maritime Corp., a transport ship operator based in Florida, said it plans to buy 42 waterfront acres from Footprint Power, which replaced the old coal plant with a gas-fired one and no longer needs as much room. Crowley would own and operate the terminal, and lease the space to the Vineyard Wind group’s two investors, Avangrid Renewables and then Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, for up to 10 years.
Jeff Andreini, a vice president at Crowley, said he hopes his company can close on the land acquisition next year. Crowley does not manufacture turbine components, but Andreini said the company would eventually try to lease part of the site to a manufacturer to augment the construction and assembling work that would happen there.
Vineyard Wind chief executive Lars Pedersen said the entire deal hinges on Vineyard Wind succeeding with its “Commonwealth Wind” proposal in the state’s latest round of bidding for offshore wind contracts. Vineyard Wind already has plans for an 800-megawatt wind farm project south of the Vineyard, called “Vineyard Wind 1,” that would be served primarily by the port in New Bedford, to be financed with contracts won in an earlier round.
Vineyard Wind would need to win the rights to deliver at least another 800 megawatts of power, enough for more than 400,000 homes, for the investment in Salem to take place, Pedersen said.
Electric utilities National Grid and Eversource, working with the administration, will make that decision this fall. It’s possible that 800-megawatt contracts could be awarded to both Vineyard Wind and its rival bidder, the Mayflower Wind consortium.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said this deal is a huge step forward in replacing some of the tax revenue and job losses that have occurred since the old power plant shut down in 2014, and was replaced by the more efficient natural gas plant in 2018. Vineyard Wind’s work at the site would support, on average, at least 100 jobs a year over a five-year period once the terminal is operational, with several hundred more supported during the redevelopment itself. Those would be good-paying blue-collar jobs, Driscoll said, that could benefit the entire region.
“It’s really an opportunity for us to turn toward the sea ... to bring jobs and revenue to our communities,” Driscoll said. “It’s an immense opportunity at a time when we need clean, affordable power to meet our climate-change goals.”
Salem is much further from the federal offshore lease areas south of the Vineyard and Nantucket than New Bedford, but it also offers more space than the state-funded $113 million terminal in New Bedford, and more room to maneuver. There is a tight squeeze to enter and exit New Bedford’s harbor because of a hurricane barrier.
“We think this can work extremely well,” Pedersen said of Salem. “These vessels will have some extra streaming time, but nothing that will not make the projects viable.”
Salem’s North Shore location does make it well-positioned if the Gulf of Maine is opened up to wind farm construction. That area has been slower to develop because it has deeper waters and would likely require floating turbines, instead of the traditional foundation-supported turbines that will go up south of the islands.
For Bob Blair, an independent ship pilot who used to help transport coal barges in the harbor, Vineyard Wind’s announcement represents a major victory. Blair helped rally the opposition to a previous proposal by Footprint Power to convert part of the site for residential use; such a conversion would need either approval by the state Legislature or state environmental regulators because the land sits in a designated port area that precludes housing construction.
“Salem, which has the oldest commercial seaport in America, has a rich history,” Blair said. “I’d be damned if I would let that go down on my watch. ... We saved a seaport and now the seaport will live on for another century.”
Officials in the Baker administration and in its quasi-public arm, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, have determined that Salem Harbor could be a viable location for an offshore wind port. Toward that end, Governor Charlie Baker is asking the state Legislature for $100 million in federal stimulus funds to buttress the port infrastructure in Salem as well as New Bedford and in the nearby South Coast town of Somerset, which was also once home to two coal plants, both now closed.
Offshore wind advocates say there will be more than enough demand to support at least two wind terminals in Massachusetts, if not more, if New England is to successfully be weaned off of fossil-fuel burning power plants by 2050. Offshore wind terminals also are being proposed in Providence, in Bridgeport and New London, Conn., and in Searsport, Maine.
“It’s pretty clear we’re going to need a constellation of ports, not just in Massachusetts but across the region,” said Susannah Hatch, the clean energy coalition director at the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
The arrival of offshore wind has been a long time coming for the members of the Salem Alliance for the Environment. The group argued about a decade ago that the power plant site should be used to help the offshore wind industry, but state officials at the time chose to focus instead on New Bedford.
SAFE cochair Patricia Gozemba said she was disappointed by that turn of events. But she is elated now.
“There were mountains of coal piled up for years, with coal dust blowing through our neighborhoods,” Gozemba said. “There is some ironic justice in having the offshore wind industry become the force that will revitalize that area.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.