The demolition of the two giant cooling towers that loomed over Somerset marked the end of an era for that South Coast town three years ago, and for New England’s entire electricity grid.
On Thursday, energy industry executives and politicians gathered at Brayton Point, where those towers once stood, to usher in a new era for the town, and the region ― one in which offshore wind replaces coal as a source of energy, jobs, and taxes.
This event was held to highlight a key milestone in that shift: a deal by Italian cable manufacturer Prysmian Group to acquire 47 acres at Brayton Point for a factory that would make the subsea lines that would bring the electricity generated offshore to the mainland.
That project would be the first major manufacturing operation in Massachusetts to emerge from this nascent industry, after state officials orchestrated a series of long-term contracts between wind farm developers and major electric utilities. Prysmian plans to invest $250 million to $300 million in the plant, executive vice president Hakan Ozmen told the crowd, and employ up to 250 people, with room for significant expansion.
“This whole process has very much been a team sport,” Governor Charlie Baker said. “For those who have participated in these activities over the course of the past seven years, getting to this point is an especially important milestone.”
Prysmian decided to build the plant because its wind-farm partner, Avangrid Renewables, won contracts in December to provide more than 1,200 megawatts of power to Massachusetts, enough power for 600,000-plus homes. Avangrid will deliver that power by building the Commonwealth Wind project 20 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, in waters near where Avangrid is developing the Vineyard Wind project as part of a joint venture.
Ozmen said the purchase of the Brayton Point land from Commercial Development Co. hinges on successful permitting for the factory. That process could take up to 18 months, he said, and construction could then take up to two years to complete. (Prysmian also employs 200 to 400 people, depending on the workload, at a cable factory in nearby Dighton.)
“This goes beyond just a project,” Dennis Arriola, Avangrid’s chief executive, said in an interview. “It’s the creation of an industry. It’s the creation of a new workforce that could be deployed and transitioned from the old economy to the new.”
Before it closed in 2017, the coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station was one of the largest power plants in New England. Now the site will be pivotal for a new sector of the energy industry. It would also help another offshore wind farm — one owned by European energy companies Shell, EDP Renewables, and Engie. That project, Mayflower Wind, won contracts in December to generate 400 megawatts for Massachusetts, boosting the wind farm’s total generating capacity to 1,200 megawatts. Mayflower Wind, whose wind turbines would go up in waters southeast of Avangrid’s projects, would use Brayton Point to connect to the region’s electricity grid, through an undersea cable more than 90 miles long. Ports in Salem and New Bedford will also play key roles in the construction of these projects.
“If we continue to play our cards well, we can make a very big investment in the Commonwealth and in this region going forward, and support a lot of activity in deep water up and down the Atlantic coast,” Baker said.
Taken together, Mayflower Wind, Commonwealth Wind, and Vineyard Wind collectively could generate 3,200 megawatts, or enough to meet roughly one-quarter of Massachusetts’ electricity demand. Of these, Vineyard Wind is the furthest along, with a goal of generating electricity within two years.
These projects were enabled by a 2016 law passed by the Massachusetts legislature to prompt massive clean-energy contracts for offshore wind and Canadian hydroelectricity, to help the state reach its ambitious emissions reduction goals, and to provide extra power to a grid that needs it on cold days in particular. Several other East Coast states have since entered the hunt for offshore wind energy and jobs, with New York and New Jersey leading the way.
State Representative Pat Haddad, whose town of Somerset was home to Brayton Point and another shuttered coal plant, was instrumental in persuading her colleagues about the importance of supporting offshore wind, in part to address the economic hit that occurred when the power plants closed.
At Thursday’s event with Baker, Haddad struggled to hold back tears as she looked out and saw that effort she began many years ago finally bearing fruit.
“To say this has been a long time coming is a massive understatement,” Haddad said.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.