The new waterfront terminal in New Bedford was supposed to be teeming with activity by now, a staging ground for a massive wind farm in Nantucket Sound.
But with a cancellation of a lease by Cape Wind, the 28-acre site has instead remained largely idle this summer. Efforts by the quasi-public Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to hire a company to position the property for cargo shipping are also taking longer than anticipated.
The $113 million terminal was built primarily with state bond money under Deval Patrick’s administration as a staging ground to ship and repair heavy offshore wind turbines. The idea, in part, was to enable New Bedford’s struggling economy to capitalize on an emerging industry by creating more clean energy jobs. But without Cape Wind as an anchor, there is no offshore wind work in sight.
To supporters, the terminal is still viewed as a potentially viable, vibrant piece of the city’s waterfront. To critics, the terminal is seen as an unnecessary expense of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.
For Matthew Beaton, Charlie Baker’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, the real question is how the state can recoup its hefty investment in a mostly dormant terminal.
The Baker administration inherited the project from Patrick, who prioritized it as a way to create clean energy jobs while providing a boost to a city in need of some economic help.
“It was a very big gamble,” said Beaton, whose role in the administration requires him to serve as chairman of the clean energy center’s board. “Unfortunately, the dice didn’t roll our way on this one.”
The dilemma of what to do next is particularly ironic for Beaton, who was skeptical of the project as a Republican state representative and is now at least partly responsible for its fate in his new role.
Beaton said the clean energy center is still determined to make the gamble pay off. The terminal was ready for shipments in January and so far has received and stored only two of them — components for a four-turbine wind farm to be built in Plymouth. State officials hope to pick a new port operator in September, with a goal of driving more general shipping work to the site while accommodating future offshore wind farm development, if any materializes. State officials declined to disclose the three bidders for the port job or the financial terms of their proposals.
“We’re really just looking at what is going to provide us with the greatest opportunity to have a stable, predictable stream of income,” Beaton said.
The terminal’s supporters celebrated its biggest success on a sunny day last September. That’s when Patrick held a press conference at the cavernous wind blade testing center in Charlestown to announce that Cape Wind had signed a $4.5 million, two-year lease to use the entire New Bedford terminal.
But the good times didn’t last. Cape Wind failed to obtain all the financing it needed, and its two would-be customers — utilities Eversource Energy and National Grid — backed out. By May, the Cape Wind lease was canceled, and the prospects for the long-awaited wind farm had dimmed significantly.
“The state committed an epic blunder by building the marine terminal as a public subsidy to the Cape Wind project without protecting itself against the contingency that the project would never get built,” Gregory Sullivan, a former state inspector general who is now research director at the right-leaning Pioneer Institute think tank, said in an e-mail.
The clean energy center wasn’t solely banking on Cape Wind, though.
Alicia Barton, the center’s departing chief executive, said she is pleased with the number of inquiries that have come through her office to use the terminal for cargo shipping. But she said no other deals have been signed aside from the one that brought Spanish wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa’s two recent shipments for Plymouth.
Gamesa is leasing a 5-acre portion of the site from July through September, Barton said. She said those payments should cover the port’s operating costs for the year, though she declined to disclose the lease’s price.
There are limits to the size of the cargo ships that can visit the terminal. New Bedford’s hurricane barrier has a 150-foot-wide opening, city officials said, and the harbor’s channel is currently 28 feet deep at low tide.
Barton said the terminal could still eventually support offshore wind development, even without Cape Wind, given that the federal government has granted leases for three offshore wind farms in the region.
“This is a long-term facility [with] a 50-year life,” Barton said. “I think it’s important for people to keep the time horizon in mind. The entire investment is not going to be recouped in year one. It’s going to take time to develop a robust business at the site.”
Ian Bowles, energy and environmental affairs secretary in the Patrick administration, said the terminal was always envisioned as a multiuse port. And Bowles said the terminal puts Massachusetts in an important position for when the offshore wind industry eventually emerges — even if that takes 10 to 20 years.
If offshore wind never comes to New Bedford’s harbor, Ed Anthes-Washburn won’t be complaining. The city’s acting port director said the terminal could, among other things, be a boon to the local fishing industry, helping seafood processors export their frozen goods efficiently to other parts of the world.
“I would never say I’m disappointed about a new piece of infrastructure that can really change the whole future of the port,” Anthes-Washburn said. “Not just the offshore wind space, but in all the other different cargoes we can bring in.”Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.