Offshore Energy Gets a Second Wind Under Biden

The Biden administration is betting that green energy produced by new offshore wind farms will help slow climate change, but fishers and some scientists say there are too many uncertainties about how the massive structures will affect the ocean and its marine life. The first big test of how the push for wind energy might clash with ocean conservation will likely play out in Massachusetts waters. This week, Department of the Interior officials gave initial approval to the $2.8 billion Vineyard Wind project located about 15 miles south of the island of Martha’s Vineyard.Once the massive wind turbines begin operating in 2023, the wind farm is expected to generate 800 megawatts of clean electricity. That’s enough to power 400,000 Massachusetts homes and businesses.Vineyard Wind will be the first big offshore wind farm on the East Coast, although smaller pilot projects are running off Block Island, Rhode Island, and Virginia Beach, Virginia. Officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an office within the Department of the Interior, are reviewing another 12 commercial offshore wind projects between Maryland and Maine. If approved, those wind farms would generate 25 gigawatts of clean energy for the power-hungry Northeast, more than doubling all land-based wind power coming online in 2021.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for wind farms. When WIRED last covered this project , in 2019, it was expected to be completed by 2021. But the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management delayed the project’s approval to review the cumulative impact of US offshore wind farms, while the company itself pulled its application to choose a different kind of turbine. Once that application was resubmitted earlier this year, the bureau approved the final environmental impact statement in several weeks.The renewed push for offshore wind power is part of a Biden administration executive order issued in January to halt new oil and gas leases on federal lands and offshore waters and replace them with clean energy. Nearly one quarter of all US greenhouse gas emissions come from oil and gas wells on federal leases, and the White House sees a big potential to cut those planet-warming emissions with offshore wind projects.But the project has gotten pushback from both environmental groups and local fishers, who say they won’t be able to navigate their boats around the 700-foot tall towers or dredge the seafloor for valuable scallops and surf clams without getting tangled in power cables. The cables are “an obstruction and a safety hazard, and they will block fishing access,” says Annie Hawkins, director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, an advocacy group representing the Northeast and New England commercial fishing industry. “The cables take up more space than the turbines and create more risks than the turbines themselves.”
Hawkins says her group has been pushing federal regulators to force Vineyard Wind to make wider sea lanes through the wind farm, so fishing boats would have more room to operate. The current plan has the turbines spaced a mile apart. As part of the overall Department of the Interior environmental review of Vineyard Wind’s application, the US Coast Guard did not approve the idea of broader 4-mile lanes over concerns it could lead to crowding on the seas.During the decade the project has been under development, Vineyard Wind has shrunk its proposed footprint. Initially, the firm planned to use 100 turbines producing 8 megawatts each. But the technology has improved and turbines have grown bigger and more powerful. Earlier this year, Vineyard Wind switched to GE’s new Halaide-X 13-megawatt turbine, reducing the overall number called for in its plan to 62 turbines, according to company spokesman Andrew Doba.