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Chesto Means Business | Jon Chesto

R.I. delegation raises concerns with speed of offshore wind review

Three wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project stand off Rhode Island.
Three wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project stand off Rhode Island.(Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/File 2016)

If the nation’s first major offshore wind farm doesn’t get off the ground, there will be plenty of finger-pointing to go around.

Some may be pointed at Rhode Island’s congressional delegation.

The state’s two senators and two representatives sent a letter on July 12 to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, expressing concerns about how the federal agency has handled the review of offshore wind development. In particular, they want BOEM to be more sensitive to potential conflicts with fishermen and marine life. (They also want the agency to open a regional office in Rhode Island.)

The letter doesn’t mention the Vineyard Wind project by name. But the timing indicates Vineyard Wind was on their minds: The letter went out the same week the developer learned that a crucial permit from BOEM would be delayed. Vineyard Wind, a venture owned by Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, said it would need the permit within the next several weeks. If not, its 800-megawatt wind farm proposal for waters south of Martha’s Vineyard couldn’t proceed in its current form.

Why the rush? Avangrid CEO Jim Torgerson spelled it out to investors on a call last week: To take advantage of an expiring federal tax credit, Vineyard Wind needs to be operational in 2021. And, the window to build this massive $2.8 billion, 84-turbine project gets smaller every day. The tax credit isn’t chump change: Torgerson said it would be valued at 24 percent of the project’s cost.

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Representative Bill Keating, who represents the Vineyard and much of the South Coast, says he only learned about the Rhode Island letter after inquiring at the Interior Department about the permit delay. There’s a new interior secretary in charge who wants to give this project, the first of its kind in the US, a closer look.

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Keating and Representative Joe Kennedy are now racing against the clock to salvage the project — which would deliver a long-awaited economic boost to their districts — with help from other members of the Massachusetts delegation, such as Senator Ed Markey and Representative Seth Moulton.

Governor Charlie Baker is doing the same: He trekked to Washington to meet with David Bernhardt, the new interior secretary, on Monday to make the case. Vineyard Wind won its contracts in a state-managed contest last year to deliver enough power for about 400,000 homes, a process established in the state’s 2016 clean energy law.

No one from the four Rhode Island congressional offices would speak to me about the letter. Instead, they issued a brief joint statement to me, referencing the five-turbine project that Deepwater Wind, now Orsted, built off Block Island. Rhode Island, they noted, is home to the country’s first offshore wind farm because it worked through a “science-based process that included extensive consultation and compromise with stakeholders.” That’s the model, they said, that any developer should follow. The delegation includes Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and Representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline.

Keating says he remains hopeful that Vineyard Wind can address the concerns raised by his Rhode Island colleagues — that more doors are opening instead of closing. And he says there’s room for Vineyard Wind to do more for the fishing industry.

Vineyard Wind already agreed to a nearly $17 million mitigation package in Rhode Island. But it doesn’t look like that will be enough. The fishing industry still has many issues. For example, the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association is worried about the effect these giant towers could have on boat radar, and the impediments that transmission cables could cause.

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The Rhode Island delegation’s letter didn’t sit well with Hugh Dunn, the New Bedford official who leads the SouthCoast Development Partnership, or state Representative Pat Haddad from Somerset. Dunn says the delays proposed in the letter could have far-reaching impacts, possibly jeopardizing Vineyard Wind’s work and scaring away investors from future offshore wind projects. And Haddad, a champion of wind energy at the State House, says she wonders why the Rhode Island lawmakers didn’t speak up sooner.

Haddad has another issue on her hands, on Beacon Hill. The state’s 2016 energy law required that the next round of offshore wind contracts beat the price set in the winner of the first round – Vineyard Wind’s surprisingly low bid. The price-cap was modified in a state budget now in Baker’s hands. Haddad hopes Baker agrees this week to lift the cap, at least for the next round of bids, due in mid-August.

After all, the developers might be scrambling to beat a price that could prove to be too good to be true — if Vineyard Wind can’t solve its permit problem before time runs out.


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

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