By Hannah Wilson-Black
On May 11th, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo announced the federal government’s approval of the nation’s first commercial scale off-shore wind farm. On-shore wind has been a presence in the United States for a while – you may have passed such turbines on a cross-country drive. And a handful of small off-shore wind projects--complete, in the planning stages, and under construction--have been developed off the coasts of the U.S. But Vineyard Wind, the project newly approved by the federal government to be built not far from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, will theoretically power 400,000 homes and businesses by the year 2023—offshore wind on a scale the U.S. has never seen before. The project would have an energy capacity of 800 megawatts and represent a little over 3% of the Biden-Harris administration’s 30-gagawatt offshore wind goal (to be achieved by 2030). Offshore wind turbine blades tend to turn faster and more uniformly than their land-based counterparts, making them an appealing venture within the wind energy industry. Needless to say, the project is a big deal. The President’s office did not make this decision alone, of course – the Record of Decision granting the project federal approval was also signed by other government agencies such as NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some of which were responsible for granting various permits to the project’s co-owners, Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.
Many of off-shore wind’s biggest challenges originate from the fact that the concept is so new in practice. Two significant concerns are electricity transportation and potential impacts to the fishing industry. Offshore wind-generated energy needs to make it into the land-based transmission systems that move our electricity. So far this has been achieved through thick cables buried in the ocean floor. These cables are subject to many unique issues—they can become uncovered, make contact with boat anchors, they’re subject to electrical faults, and they’re difficult to install and replace, though some American and European undersea cable manufacturers have confidently declared that they’re up to the task of improving cable technology.   Plus, we don’t yet have the data to prove whether or not heat, noise, or electromagnetic fields created by the cables or wind turbine construction have any adverse affects on wildlife.
As for the fishing industry, Vineyard Wind is aware that its 84 wind turbines will take up valuable fishing area and potentially disrupt fish habitat (again, there are long-term studies underway to study operating turbines’ effects on fish, but complete, conclusive data is sparse) and in an attempt to appease concerned fishermen in Rhode Island they offered a compensation package totaling $4.2 million (for direct income loss) plus $12.5 million in a trust fund for more indirect damages. However, the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Advisory Board, with whom the deal was brokered, has made it clear that they did not agree to the deal out of genuine enthusiasm. The Board’s chairman explained that the fishermen felt that if they did not accept the deal, Vineyard Wind might appeal the federal government, which he says has been very favorable to wind recently at the expense of fishermen, and at that point they would be required to give even less compensation, if any. It’s clear that the Vineyard Wind project is going ahead, but fishing industry advocates have asked for a slow, cautious process going forward, with input from fishermen. All eyes are on this cutting-edge, landmark project--can we enter a brave new energy future without leaving anyone behind?