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Biden administration backs nation’s biggest wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard

Once blocked by some waterfront landowners, offshore wind power now enjoys broad support

Deepwater Wind turbines off Block Island, R.I., in 2016. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

The Biden administration took a crucial step Monday toward approving the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm about 12 nautical miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a project that officials say will launch a massive clean-power expansion in the fight against climate change.

In completing a final environmental review of Vineyard Wind, the Interior Department endorsed an idea that had been conceived two decades ago but had run into a well-funded and organized opposition from waterfront property owners near the tony island, including then-Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D), who died in 2009, and the billionaire industrialist William I. Koch.

The $2.8 billion project is set to be built several miles south of the original plan fought by the Kennedy family and will be out of sight from the family’s Hyannis compound.

The Biden administration framed Monday’s decision as a way to increase the nation’s renewable energy capacity while creating well-paying construction jobs building turbines and other clean-energy equipment.

“The demand for offshore wind energy has never been greater,” Laura Daniel Davis, principal deputy assistant secretary of land and minerals at Interior, told reporters in a news call. “The technological advances, falling costs, increased interest and the tremendous economic potential make offshore wind a really promising avenue.”

The Vineyard Wind project, which is jointly run by the energy firms Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, will consist of up to 84 turbines that will generate about 800 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 400,000 homes, according to the companies. Cables buried six feet below the ocean floor will carry the electricity created by the turbines to Cape Cod, where the power will feed into the New England grid, starting in 2023.

The project will boost the fledgling offshore wind power industry in the United States, which now largely consists of a five-turbine, 30-megawatt project off Block Island, R.I., that began operating in 2016.

The offshore wind sector in the United States pales in comparison to that in Europe, where thousands of turbines are connected to the grid. But wind power is poised to take off along the East Coast, with recent commitments from several states — Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia — to buy at least 25,000 megawatts of offshore electricity by 2035, according to the American Clean Power Association.

“By any measure, this is a breakthrough for offshore wind energy in the United States. Not even two months into a new Administration, years of delay have finally culminated in a thorough analysis that should soon put this infrastructure investment on its way to generating clean power for the region and creating good jobs at home,” Heather Zichal, the association’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Vineyard Wind awaits a final greenlight from several federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which could come as soon as next month.

If it wins final approval, the wind farm will go a long way toward cleaning up the power sector in Massachusetts. The state has pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but right now it gets about two-thirds of its electricity from gas, a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change. Supporters say the wind turbines will produce enough clean energy to eliminate 1.68 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually — equal to taking 325,000 cars off the road.

Tracking Biden's environmental policies

“With every step taken to reinsert certainty, reliability, and scientific rigor into the regulatory process for the Vineyard Wind project, the Biden administration is putting wind back in the sails of this vital new industry,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who helped craft his party’s Green New Deal in the previous Congress.

In December, Markey and other New England senators, including Susan Collins (R-Maine), successfully extended tax cuts for offshore wind developers as part of a coronavirus stimulus package.

Though the Trump administration held sales for offshore wind leases, approval of the Massachusetts project proved elusive last year as concerns over the wind farm’s impact on the local fishing industry mounted.

To assuage fishing concerns, the Biden administration is asking for the turbines to be spaced about a mile apart to allow smaller vessels to continue to fish between them.

But Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, which represents commercial fishing, slammed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for failing to expand transit lanes to four miles through the sprawling 167,000-acre lease area to accommodate larger boats.

“If they have to spend an extra 10 hours to go around the turbines,” she said, “that’s 10 hours of lost revenue.”

Hawkins also raised concerns over the turbines interfering with fishing radar, as well as the potential impact of construction on the endangered North Atlantic right whale. “Climate change is really important,” she added. “But we need to do our due diligence on the environmental impacts.”

Offshore wind power holds significant potential for creating high-paying renewable-energy jobs the administration has promised to deliver, although the projects typically employ fewer people than the major fossil fuel pipelines that generate union jobs in the United States.

Orsted, a Danish firm that operates the wind farm off Rhode Island and has other leases along the coast as far south as Maryland, signed an agreement in November with North America’s Building Trades Unions to hire some of its workers. And it has been providing funding to the training school for the International Organization Masters, Mates, & Pilots Maritime Union, which is part of the AFL-CIO.

Donald Marcus, president of the maritime union, said Orsted’s support for the Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies in Linthicum Heights, Md., could help produce workers who can build turbines in the ocean.

“Generally speaking, vessel personnel make good family wages if they’re union jobs,” Marcus said. “That’s the case in large sectors of our industry. But not, I add, in the oil patch down in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Offshore oil extraction in the gulf, which is near anti-union, conservative states, typically does not employ union workers.

In contrast, the Laborers’ International Union of North America worked to build Deepwater Wind, the nation’s first foray into offshore wind power.

Monday’s announcement drew praise from industry. National Ocean Industries Association President Erik Milito said it was “critical for the project developers and for the offshore wind industry as a whole.”

Milito called on the administration to move even faster, noting that it has been two years since the last federal offshore wind lease sale. He noted that a recent analysis suggested near-term lease opportunities could generate more than $160 billion in new investment over the next 15 years, but that Interior’s Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management “must first open the door to new leasing.”

Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report.