A brand-new industry is launching in America — and its fate is inextricably linked to the success or failure of President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda.
The federal government this week gave the green light to Vineyard Wind, the nation’s first commercial scale offshore wind farm. Although onshore wind is a growing part of the nation’s power grid, offshore wind is just getting off the ground.
Located 15 miles off the southern coast of Martha’s Vineyard, the massive project aims to power more than 400,000 Massachusetts homes and businesses, slash carbon emissions and create thousands of jobs.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. America’s power system needs a serious makeover in order to meet President Biden’s emissions goals. Dirty coal must be replaced by much more solar and wind — including a series of offshore wind farms that begin with Vineyard Wind.
And if the 84-turbine project flops, it will give ammunition to critics who argue offshore wind is too expensive, too unreliable and too complicated.
“We do feel a responsibility to get it right,” said Bill White, vice president of offshore wind at Avangrid Renewables, which co-owns the Vineyard Wind venture along with Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. “We are prepared. We are ready. The project has been intensely vetted.”
Now that the project has secured its final, major federal approval from the Bureau of Ocean Management, Vineyard Wind plans to begin construction this year and start providing power to Massachusetts in 2023.
But this is no small task. Offshore wind farms must contend with rough seas, bad weather and the inherent challenges of installing gigantic wind turbines at sea — and then connecting them to land miles away.
“This first project is terribly important in getting this sector kicked off on the right foot,” said Dan Shreve, head of global wind energy at consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.
One key challenge is connecting export cables from the wind farm to power stations — in a way that doesn’t interfere with coastal communities.
“We are seeing tremendous pushback within some communities over siting,” Shreve said.
For instance, the Block Island Wind Farm, which lies 140 miles southwest of the Martha’s Vineyard site, is a much smaller project that launched in late 2016 and has run into problems after an undersea cable became uncovered. Reburying the cable at sea has proven complicated and set off a controversy over the cost to consumers.
Vineyard Wind, which received 33,000 public comments and went through hundreds of hours of public hearings, also faced opposition from commercial fishermen worried about the impact to their industry. To ease those concerns, the developers reached agreements with Massachusetts and Rhode Island to compensate fishermen for potential losses of revenue.
Avangrid, which has previously built offshore wind farms in Europe, applauded Biden’s team for approving a project that languished for years.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that the Trump administration was focused on advancing fossil fuels and not renewable energy projects. Whether it was intentional or not, there was a stagnation of the process,” said White. “The Biden administration has convened an all-of-government approach to offshore wind, which we’ve never seen before.”
$2.5 trillion in renewable energy spending
Offshore wind is a central part of Biden’s clean energy agenda. The president recently laid out an ambitious goal of cutting US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.
His climate targets represent a “challenging task and require major changes in the country’s energy system that would shake the current fuel mix,” research firm Rystad Energy wrote in a report on Friday.
Rystad Energy laid out a model that it considers the most achievable roadmap to reaching Biden’s goals. It calls for spending a staggering $2.5 trillion on renewable energy projects in this decade alone and sharp cuts to America’s fossil fuels appetite. Rystad Energy said that by 2030 US coal consumption will need be slashed by about two-thirds from 2021 levels and natural gas consumption will need to drop by 27%.
At the same time, solar and wind power will need to grow dramatically to pick up the slack and eventually generate the majority of US power. Rystad Energy said a total of 700 gigawatts of wind capacity alone must be added by 2030.
To put that into perspective, while Vineyard Wind is a large project, the 800 megawatts of power it will generate is a drop in the bucket of what’s needed.
“The approval of this project is an important step toward advancing the Administration’s goals to create good-paying union jobs while combating climate change and powering our nation,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement.
Offshore wind is especially important to efforts to decarbonize Northeast coastal states. Shreve, the Wood Mackenzie executive, noted that those states often have dense populations and yet lack the space or climate needed for large-scale solar and onshore wind power generation.
“But they do have exceptional offshore wind resources,” he said.
Until recently, offshore wind projects were considered too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. Technological gains have changed that thinking.
“The costs have come down precipitously,” said Shreve. “It’s now viable where you can make the case as a politician that it’s a realistic option to decarbonize our state.”
Part of the key to that is the evolution of the turbines themselves, which are much more powerful than a decade ago.
Vineyard Wind will be powered by the Haliade-X, the world’s largest and most powerful offshore wind turbine. The 13-megawatt turbine, manufactured by General Electric (GE), stands 853 feet tall, nearly as high as the Eiffel Tower, and its blades are 350 feet long.
“Just one rotation of the turbine will power an entire Massachusetts house for a day. It’s staggering,” said White, the Avangrid executive. “There has been an extraordinary acceleration of the technology.”