After years of frustrating false starts with Cape Wind, Massachusetts and the state’s electric utilities are on the verge of picking the winner, or winners, in the state’s latest stab at realizing its offshore wind potential. Three bidders have proposed new wind farms off Southeastern Massachusetts, offering up to 800 megawatts in capacity — more power, on a windy day, than the Pilgrim nuclear power plant. If successful, any of the projects should provide a big boost to the state’s clean energy goals and help nurture a local industry.
Still, the collapse of the Cape Wind project, despite years of hand-holding by the state, was a warning of how even well-intended and lavishly supported projects can crumble in the Commonwealth’s litigious culture. And while the three applicants all stress how much better their plans are than Cape Wind, and how much more inclusive the planning process has been, a bet-hedging approach that takes into account the many potential pitfalls ahead would be warranted.
To the greatest extent practical, the committee making the selection should divide the procurement among multiple bidders. That strategy has its drawbacks, but spreading the contract around should reduce the chances that a single lawsuit or corporate setback endangers the whole endeavor. Splitting up the procurement would also help create the conditions for offshore wind in Massachusetts to develop as a competitive industry that’s not dominated by a single behemoth
The three applicants — Bay State Wind, Deepwater Wind, and Vineyard Wind — have proposed wind farms that occupy parcels of ocean that are physically close to one another. Bay State Wind is a joint effort by the utility company Eversource and the Danish firm Orsted. Vineyard Wind is a project of Avangrid, a large utility company, and another group of Danes, Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. Deepwater, which operates the existing pilot wind farm off Block Island, has partnered with National Grid.
Despite the similarities, though, there are also potentially important differences between the bidders, including projected construction timetables and the routes for the undersea cables they would use to connect to land. Each has submitted multiple proposals of different sizes, giving the selection committee a menu of options to choose from. The state says it will pick no less than 400 MW, and no more than 800 MW, of wind generation in this procurement round.
One approach, urged by Bay State Wind in particular, would be for the state to give the full 800 MW award to one company. That outcome might maximize economies of scale, and show the worldwide offshore wind industry that Massachusetts means business.
But an 800 MW procurement split up between multiple bidders would also send a strong message. And it would hedge the state’s bets in case developers have unexpected trouble with financing or permits, or litigation slows the projects.
Hopefully, the winner or winners in this round of bidding won’t encounter the death-by-thousand-cuts opposition that killed Cape Wind. But banking on smooth sailing and accepting the developers’ sunny timetables as gospel would be letting hope triumph over experience. Already, the lawyers are stirring. In New York, fishermen sued in an effort to prevent a wind farm off Long Island. And competing electric generators in New England have shown they aren’t above ginning up opposition to commercial rivals. The Massachusetts selection committee has to pay attention to price, job creation, and other factors, but it also needs to make sure that it’s giving the state the best chance to overcome the kinds of obstacles that have thwarted it before.
Correction: A previous version of this editorial did not use the correct abbreviation for megawatt.