The fierce competitors in the local offshore wind industry probably hoped to make a big splash with this news: They teamed up to propose a grid that creates uniform spacing between each tower and a similar orientation for the various wind farm proposals south of Martha’s Vineyard.
One of the chief goals was to assuage concerns among fishermen who worry that an uncoordinated array of hundreds of towers would make the waters hard to navigate — effectively displacing them from rich fishing grounds.
However, plenty of fishermen aren’t taking the bait. For many of them, the one nautical mile distance proposed between each giant turbine tower simply isn’t enough — especially for boats that are dragging big nets behind them.
Persuading fishermen to toe the line could be crucial to the nascent industry’s survival. Construction was about to begin on what would have been the first major offshore wind farm in the US until Interior Secretary David Bernhardt dragged out the permitting in August. Bernhardt ostensibly wants a study of the cumulative impact from all the wind farms in the pipeline, before allowing the first one to proceed.
The backers of Vineyard Wind (Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners) are now hoping for a mid-2020 construction start, and they’re pressing the IRS to protect valuable tax credits that would otherwise expire because of the bureaucratic delay.
Vineyard Wind’s rivals don’t want to stall out, either. So this pact emerged. Vineyard Wind agreed to widen the spacing between its turbines, to get to the 1-mile separation. The other companies that signed on: the Orsted/Eversource partnership, Equinor, and Mayflower Wind. Vineyard Wind won the first series of contracts with Massachusetts utilities, for 800 megawatts (enough power for more than 400,000 homes), last year to finance its project. Mayflower Wind is next in line, after winning the second round of bidding this fall, to supply a similar amount of electricity.
Mayflower president John Hartnett said his colleagues all hope that the proposed concessions could help push Vineyard Wind forward with Interior. A uniform layout, he said, gives regulators a better understanding of the industry’s long-term impact, could expedite permitting for other projects, and perhaps avoids additional last-minute surprises or snafus.
However, he said the proposal isn’t necessarily ideal from a developer’s standpoint. Companies typically want some flexibility in planning the best places to mount these towers to capture the most wind power.
This compromise plan was spelled out in a Nov. 1 letter to the Coast Guard signed by all five energy companies but was only made public on Tuesday.
Will the fishing industry bite? Maybe not. Complaints continued unabated on Tuesday about the potential hazards to navigation these towers would pose and the impact they could have on the boats’ radar.
David Frulla, a lawyer who represents the Fisheries Survival Fund, said his scalloper clients would still consider this large section of water to be closed off to them under the new plan, for safety reasons. Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, said boats with dragging gear may be forced to travel too close to each other — think of two cars driving down the highway towing parachutes behind them. And Jeff Reichle, of Lund’s Fisheries in Cape May, N.J., had an unprintable reaction to the developers’ grid layout, before stating simply that “the whole thing is just nonsensical.”
These aren’t the words the wind developers want to hear.
Nonetheless, supporters of offshore wind see this shared plan as a hopeful sign. Eric Wilkinson, general counsel with the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said the uniform layout should ease some of Interior’s concerns. But Wilkinson also worries that Bernhardt, a Trump appointee, might not to want to give a win to the renewable energy crowd if it could be viewed as a victory for Democrats.
Politics could trump policy.
If that happens, even the smartest plan could run aground. To increase the chances for success, developers know they should court the fishing industry. At this point, though, they may still need to bring more fishermen on board.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.