On a windy stretch of ocean ten miles northeast of Martha’s Vineyard lies the watery grave of America’s first major offshore wind farm. 

This is where a Boston-based company called Energy Management planned to build 130 Statue of Liberty-sized turbines, enough to supply power to 200,000 homes. 

But the project known as Cape Wind never made it beyond the planning stages. Facing relentless opposition from wealthy homeowners on Nantucket Sound, including the billionaire industrialist William Koch and the late Democratic senator Edward Kennedy, it drowned in a sea of lawsuits over 16 years. Energy Management declared it dead in December 2017. 

Cape Wind’s historic failure, even as Europe and Asia add more offshore wind farms every year, has become an infamous cautionary tale for the wind development industry. It seemed the US was destined to lag behind its peers. 

But now the playing field has changed. The costs of offshore wind plummeted by 64% between 2012 and 2018, mainly thanks to the invention of ever-larger turbines and deepening supply chains tied to Europe. Democrat-led states in New England have championed offshore wind as a way to take advantage of the high wind speeds off the coast and save space along crowded waterfront towns and cities while providing zero-carbon electricity. 

“There are strong factors in favor of offshore wind,” said Maxwell Cohen, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy. “In the Northeast, it’s where the strongest wind resources are located, and then you lay on top of that an economic development argument, as there are all these port facilities that would facilitate it…It starts to create a pretty compelling argument.”

“But the real catalyst is that it is getting cheaper,” he said. 

The result is a huge pipeline of 20-some mammoth projects waiting to pick up the necessary approvals and permits. States have committed to sign contracts for as many as 30 or more gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity by 2030 — the equivalent of around 15 nuclear power plants. A handful of large companies, including European firms like Denmark’s Orsted and Norway’s Equinor, will spend some $70 billion on offshore wind along the East Coast and provide jobs for 40,000 people by the end of the decade, according to a 2019 analysis by the Special Initiative for Offshore Wind (SIOW), an independent unit of the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. 

The very first of these projects, called Vineyard Wind 1, is in some respects a larger, higher-tech successor to Cape Wind. Its 57 to 100 turbines will each stretch nearly 700 feet in the air. With likely spacing of one nautical mile between each turbine, the turbines would sprawl across 160,000 acres — nearly the size of New York City. 

But Vineyard Wind 1’s developers — a joint venture called Vineyard Wind that consists of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid, a subsidiary of Spanish renewables giant Iberdrola — know that they aren’t the first to venture into the waters here. The ruins of Cape Wind are only about 30 miles away, on the opposite side of Martha’s Vineyard. They know they must tread carefully.

Until the middle of last year, Vineyard Wind had enjoyed mostly smooth sailing. But in August last year the lead federal agency in charge of permitting, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), put the lengthy permitting process on hold. So many wind turbines were now scheduled to be built along the East Coast, it said, that it needed to examine the “cumulative effects” of all of them rather than focus on just one project. It was at once a compliment and an insult to the industry’s vast ambitions.

That was bad enough news for Vineyard Wind 1. Once slated to start construction in 2019 and to start generating power by 2022, the delay has forced it to push back its target start-up date to at least 2023. It is now in danger of missing out on key federal tax credits that will soon expire, known as the Investment Tax Credit.

Then, last week, the results of the BOEM study on “cumulative effects” were released. According to the report — a 421-page, single-spaced supplement to an even more thoroughgoing “environmental impact statement” — the impact on fisheries of the massive build-out of wind farms in the region could be “major.” That language is stronger than BOEM had previously used, and a sign that developers will need to work harder to appease the East Coast’s fishing industry. 

“Major cumulative effects could occur on commercial fisheries,” the report said, largely due to the potential for boat traffic congestion and lack of space for boats towing large trawling nets. The report also noted that climate change will be a contributing factor.

It was a blow not just to Vineyard Wind 1 but to the many other projects that hope to follow. 

“Everybody in the industry has been holding their breath to see how BOEM is going to treat those ‘cumulative effects’ for Vineyard,” said Julia Wood, a partner at law firm Van Ness Feldman. “It’s widely expected that whatever approach BOEM takes here, it could take across the board” for wind farms seeking a federal permit. 

Developers might have hoped that the BOEM study would allow them to focus on other obstacles to future wind development, such as ensuring that states stick to their promises to buy generous amounts of electricity from future offshore wind farms. Instead, they now face more discussions with the fishing industry. 

Fishing industry’s clout

In the East, the fishing industry is a heavyweight. 

New England and the Atlantic states created around $2 billion in economic value and provided tens of thousands of jobs in 2017, according to a 2018 report by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Under President Donald Trump, it has also enjoyed greater political influence. Earlier this month, fishing groups applauded when Trump signed an executive order to lift commercial fishing limits at a marine sanctuary off New England.

Its clout was on display last year when, as Vineyard Wind 1 was seeking one of several permits it needs from the federal government, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) refused to sign off, saying that the concerns of the fishing industry had not been fully addressed. BOEM, the lead agency for the permitting, chafed at its rejection. “We hope that, on reflection, NMFS will concur with our conclusion,” wrote one BOEM official in a private letter to NMFS, according to a Reuters report in July 2019. 

In the end, it was BOEM that was forced to agree. In August, BOEM announced that it would pause the permitting process while it undertook a supplemental study of the offshore wind industry’s “cumulative effects.” It was the results of that supplemental study which were released last week. 

Reached for this article, a Vineyard Wind spokesperson said it “look[s] forward to engaging with the agency and the many different stakeholders as we continue to make our way through this important public process.” Fishing groups said they welcomed the report but needed more time to digest the details.

A dispute over where turbines should go

Even so, representatives of some fishing groups are worried that their voices are not being heard. 

After BOEM paused the permitting process in August, the five main wind companies vying to develop the New England coast — Equinor, Mayflower Wind, Ørsted, Eversource, and Vineyard Wind — scrambled to find a way to appease fishermen. By November, they decided they had found the perfect solution. They were wrong. 

In a letter sent to the Coast Guard on November 1st, 2019, the five companies proposed to space each turbine at a distance of one nautical mile (about 1.15 actual miles) apart from every other — more separation between turbines than at any other offshore wind farm in the world. Vineyard Wind 1 as well as all future wind farms in the area could follow this grid arrangement, the letter suggested, even if it came at the cost of fitting fewer turbines inside costly lease areas. 

“[T]he New England Leaseholders are proud to be working together to present a collaborative solution that we believe accommodates all ocean users in the region,” announced the letter. 

It seemed like a generous offer: one nautical mile of spacing would be more than at any other offshore wind farm in the world. There was just one problem: the wind developers didn’t tell all top fishing industry groups about it. 

The first that Annie Hawkins, executive director of a fishing industry group called the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), and her colleagues learned of the plan, she said, was when a reporter from the Boston Globe called shortly before a Coast Guard press lease embargo was lifted. 

“The fishing groups didn’t know anything about it,” said Hawkins. Wind developers had been in close discussions with fishing groups, but they had never mentioned that they would formally propose a 1-nautical-mile separation between turbines, she said. 

In fact, fishermen say that one nautical mile is often not enough, especially for boats that tow large trawling nets behind them. 

“So on January 3rd we started another proposal,” Hawkins said. “ ‘Okay, keep the one-by-one nautical mile arrangement, but also include four mile-wide transit lanes.’ ”

A transit lane is a four-mile-wide path that would pass straight through proposed wind farms. Fishermen argue that one or several transit lanes are necessary to reduce congestion on the way to and from key fishing zones and to make room for the large nets that trawlers use. Wind developers would prefer to do without transit lanes: they take up precious lease area space which could otherwise be filled with turbines. 

Pressed by RODA, BOEM did include transit lanes in its study. But last week’s release of that study showed that incorporating a transit lane wouldn’t substantially change the effects on fisheries, leaving it unclear whether the agency will favor that approach when it releases its next report in December. 

Asked about whether wind developers had failed to brief fishing groups about their November 1st proposal, Vineyard Wind didn’t reply. But fellow offshore wind developer Eversource emphasized that the “process by which we developed the 1 x 1 nautical mile layout was inclusive. 125+ fisheries organizations and over 700 fisheries stakeholders were engaged over the course of two years for input on the Ørsted/Eversource projects alone,” said Eversource spokesman Reid Lamberty, referring to a joint venture with another wind developer.

“We’re committed to doing all we can to further minimize any impacts to commercial fishermen.”

Are offshore wind farms bad for fisheries? The evidence is unclear

Wind turbines have dotted the horizons of European countries like the UK and Germany for more than a dozen years. But the word on how they impact fisheries still falls short of conclusive. Partly that’s because offshore development proceeded largely without the input of fishermen, and fishing in or near wind farm areas is not as common as it would be in the US, meaning the issue has not attracted as much attention. 

Last week’s supplemental BOEM study reached its conclusion that the cumulative effects on fisheries could be “major” by assessing dozens of individual factors, and then repeating that analysis for each of a handful of overall designs of where to place Vineyard Wind 1’s turbines and cables as well as those of future projects. 

Individual, nearly all of the factors it assessed — from noise creation to the laying down of undersea cables — counted as “negligible” to “minor,” largely because many of the disruptive effects, including the actual construction of the wind farms, would only be temporary. Perhaps the most serious impact, it found, would be potential congestion of fishing traffic lanes and the risk of entanglement because of the large trawling nets that some fishing boats tow in their wake. Clam fishers, for example, often require a minimum distance of two nautical miles between structures for safe operations. 

“The presence of [wind turbines] could also lead to long-term changes to fishing vessel transit routes during operations, which could affect travel time and trip costs.”

Still, the structures associated with any one wind farm on its own wouldn’t likely have “major” impacts on commercial fishing activity, the study said. It is mainly because of the combined impact of future wind farms that the study concluded the effects on commercial fishing could potentially be major, the study concludes.

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