Vineyard Wind: delayed project reveals bluster in US’s offshore wind ambitions

Ross Davies 4 December 2019 (Last Updated July 30th, 2020 22:08)

The recent decision by the Interior Department to hit the pause button on plans to build the first major US offshore windfarm off the Massachusetts coast means the project now hangs in the balance. Amid federal agency infighting, does the country risk squandering a vital resource of clean energy? We investigate.

Vineyard Wind: delayed project reveals bluster in US’s offshore wind ambitions
The New York State Government has split the funding to encourage 1.5GW of offshore wind development. Credit: US Department of Energy.

For its adherents, the benefits of offshore wind are self-evident: abundant, clean, emission-free power.

But for supporters of a new development off the Eastern seaboard – billed as the first utility-scale offshore wind project in the US – progress to make their vision a reality has been frustratingly unforthcoming.

In August, it was announced that Vineyard Wind – which had been scheduled to start construction off the coast of Massachusetts later this year – had been put on hold, pending a federal environmental review supported by the Interior Department.

The agency’s decision means Vineyard Wind’s original aim to construct 84 giant turbines, 14 miles off the state’s coast, able to generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes by 2022 – now hangs in the balance.

The reason behind the Interior Department’s slow-walk is due to concerns around the project’s impact on the local fishing industry. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) claims the windfarm’s design, as it stands, would encroach on species and commercial fishing operations in the Atlantic waters.

Thus, the NMFS has informed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the agency responsible for offshore wind projects, that it won’t sign off on the project until it is satisfied suitable changes have been incorporated.

Having already secured contracts with Massachusetts electric utilities, the companies behind Vineyard Wind – Spanish-owned Avangrid Inc and Denmark’s Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners – are unamused by this interagency scrimmage. The developer claims the wait for an environmental permit would jeopardise the project’s timeline.

The waiting game: could Vineyard Wind be the new Cape Wind?

It is not the first time a major offshore wind project off the Massachusetts shoreline has been met with the thumbs down. Vineyard Wind is preceded by Cape Wind, which, back in 2001, promised to be the country’s first offshore wind farm, situated in Nantucket Sounds, some five miles off the coast.

However, a 16-year-long culmination of financial setbacks and political and personal opposition – local, well-heeled residents, including industrialist Bill Koch and Senator Edward Kennedy, were amongst its loudest critics – saw the project finally give up the ghost in 2017.

It’s easy to draw parallels between Vineyard Wind and Cape Wind. That said, appetite for offshore wind development in the US is much greater now than it was at the start of the millennium. The Interior Department is said to be considering auctioning more offshore wind leases to New York and California, while New Jersey has set 1200MW solicitations for next year and 2022.

Such enthusiasm, though, is yet to translate into the construction of any tangible large-scale offshore wind infrastructure. In contrast to the boom of inland turbines in recent years – the US has the world’s second largest onshore wind power capacity behind China – there is only one small offshore wind farm in the country, situated near Block Island, Rhode Island. It went online in 2016.

Build them and they will come: momentum needed to push industry forward

However, offshore wind experts believe it is only a matter of time before the industry will begin to catch up.

“Currently, eight states, from Maine to Virginia, have committed to their utilities procuring 22.5GW of offshore wind from now through to 2035,” says Stephanie McClellan, a researcher and director of the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind at the University of Delaware.

“That is equivalent to the entire global installed capacity at the end of 2018, and is just the tip of the iceberg. As the cost of offshore wind continues to fall and the US supply chain matures, the industry is set for continued market growth well beyond initial state policy commitments.”

For McClellan, once the first utility-scale projects see the light of day, others will follow in quick succession – which she likens to “a blast cap”. Liz Burdock, president of the Business Network for Offshore Wind also believes that “the US offshore wind energy market is expanding every day”, but there are caveats for growth.

“In order to keep the industry’s momentum, we need to focus on certain key issues and policies,” she says. “That means expanded training programmes to build the skilled labour force we will need, as well as greater investments in ports to support both installation and offshore wind component manufacturing.

“There also needs to be increased outreach with science-based research to the commercial fishing industry, so that offshore wind may proceed smoothly without the added cost and time delays from lawsuits.”

Beyond the White House: offshore wind power a state-driven policy

Such ardour for offshore wind does not extend to the White House. President Trump was vocal in his criticism of the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre in Aberdeen Bay – situated close to one of his golf courses – which he accused of creating an eyesore and denting tourism.

Offshore wind also runs counter to the President’s attempt to revive fossil fuels in the US – a theme on which he campaigned during the 2016 election. However, according to Timothy Fox, a vice president with the Washington research firm ClearView Energy Partners, this hasn’t necessarily dampened wind deployment targets at state level.

“The economics of offshore wind compared to other renewable resources in the US suggest its domestic deployment may remain state-policy driven,” he says. “We also don’t think the Trump Administration opposes offshore wind, but we think it is prioritising its efforts toward other resources.

“We project East Coast states to deploy between 5,000 – 8,000MW of offshore wind by 2025, representing a significant uptick from the current deployment of 30MW.”

Getting steel in the water: can the US catch up with European wind capacity?

Nonetheless, Fox is circumspect when it comes to certain areas. He believes the BOEM’s decision to delay its permit for Vineyard Wind has “raised uncertainty and risk for project developers and their investors.” He also believes comparisons between the US and Europe – which now has a total installed offshore wind capacity of over 18,000MW – to be overly ambitious.

“European nations have experience and established supply chains for offshore wind,” he says. “They are also deploying the resource at a faster clip than the US. Offshore wind deployment here is unlikely to rival Europe soon.”

Burdock is more optimistic. In her eyes, US demand for offshore wind-generated electricity is “growing on both coasts” and “could soon surpass that of Europe”.

“We see almost limitless opportunity for the US offshore wind industry,” she says. “Offshore wind is now a global industry, and it is clear that the US pipeline of projects with secure off-take agreements is equivalent to all that Europe has installed over the past 30 years.

“We believe that the US experience in offshore oil drilling, onshore wind, big data and artificial intelligence will allow the offshore wind industry to make giant steps forward once it starts getting steel in the water here.”