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Chesto Means Business

Vineyard Wind project lands in rough waters

Three wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project stand off Block Island, R.I.
Three wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project stand off Block Island, R.I. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/File)

The massive offshore wind farm that would usher Massachusetts into a new clean-energy era sure has hit rough water.

No one said starting a new industry is easy. But wind-energy supporters are getting nervous about the unexpected events this week involving permits for Vineyard Wind’s 84-tower wind farm to be built south of Martha’s Vineyard.

The project, jointly owned by Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, had seemed to be gathering permits the way a kid gathers shells on the beach. One after another, the developer added them to the bucket.

Then the snag: The Edgartown Conservation Commission on Wednesday denied an underwater cable route off the town’s coastline, citing the potential disturbance to marine habitats and other conflicts. (Local fishermen weren’t happy, either.) On Friday, Vineyard Wind vowed to get a “superseding order” from the state Department of Environmental Protection — a more sympathetic venue — that would overturn the commission vote.

More trouble lurks: Vineyard Wind also disclosed that the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management would not issue a crucial permit, as expected, this week. Vineyard Wind didn’t say much, other than noting this is the first “commercial-scale” offshore wind project in the United States, and thus will undergo an unusual amount of scrutiny. A spokesman says no executives would be willing to talk about the setback — not a good sign.

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A spokesman for the federal agency wouldn’t say much, either, other than to note that the agency is still within a previously established two-year period for its review. Oh, and that these are monstrous infrastructure projects. (Translation: Don’t rush us.)

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has much at stake. In a competition overseen by the state last year, Vineyard Wind beat out two competitors for the utility contracts necessary to finance its 800-megawatt wind farm — enough power for 400,000 homes — by offering the lowest price for the energy.

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Maybe Governor Baker’s team is working to speed things along with the feds. Spokesman Peter Lorenz only provided a brief statement, saying the administration expects Vineyard Wind to work with federal regulators “to move this important project forward.”

The delay at Interior could be chalked up to simple bureaucracy. After all, the wheels of the federal government’s machinery often move slower than a windmill on a windless day.

But the silence allowed rumors to swirl. Maybe the commercial fishermen got the upper hand. Or maybe President Trump’s new interior secretary, former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, has concerns. There is talk that the Nantucket select board might gear up for litigation.

Vineyard Wind has had stumbles before, but those were quickly resolved. Neighbors in Yarmouth raised a ruckus over a power line connection to the mainland, so the developer changed the preferred landfall point. Rhode Island fishermen lamented the potential conflicts to their dragging, so Vineyard Wind offered a mitigation package.

The potential for construction delays increases with each passing day. Vineyard Wind plans to start work by the end of the year, and get the project plugged in by the end of 2021.

The clock is ticking. Vineyard Wind’s utility contracts require the first phase to go online by Jan. 15, 2022. The developer has orders with suppliers lined up that could be jeopardized.

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There’s also some question about a federal tax credit that expires at the end of 2019. Vineyard Wind has apparently qualified, but that status could be in trouble if certain milestones aren’t met.

None of Vineyard Wind’s rivals want to see the project collapse.

And Eric Wilkinson, of the pro-wind Environmental League of Massachusetts, called the delay troubling, if not frightening. Meanwhile, Bob Rio, at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, says he’s anxious to see Vineyard Wind get started.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, whose city would host much of the staging work, put on a brave face, saying it’s hardly surprising Vineyard Wind has encountered delays, given its unprecedented nature.

Those in the energy industry remember the failed Cape Wind project well. That was supposed to be the country’s first offshore wind project. Time ran out, and the project died. It may have been a pioneer. But the offshore wind industry wants a different kind of leader now, one that can actually harness the potential of all those gusts blowing off the coast.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.