The Trump administration’s delay of a permit for what would be the first large U.S. offshore wind farm puts the country farther behind nations moving quickly to exploit that renewable energy source.
Vineyard Wind planned to break ground on an 84-turbine farm south of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts by the end of this year, but progress is stopped as it awaits final environmental review by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The bureau said on Aug. 9 that it put a freeze on issuing an impact statement so it can study the effect of the farm as the offshore wind industry has expanded more rapidly than initially expected.
Vineyard Wind’s plan to break ground by the end of 2019 would make the project eligible for a 12% tax credit, something industry insiders say is essential to competitive electricity pricing. Under the plan, the first turbine would be in the seabed in 2021 and the wind farm would be generating electricity in 2022. The turbines, with 800 megawatts of capacity, are projected to produce the amount of energy used by over 400,000 Massachusetts homes.
The new setback for Vineyard Wind came less than two weeks after the European offshore wind sector celebrated another milestone. On July 29 Prince Charles officially opened the 588- megawatt Beatrice project, Scotland’s largest. The U.K. now has 17 offshore wind farms with at least 200 megawatts of capacity, while the U.S. has one, the 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. Germany, China, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands have offshore projects with at least 200 megawatts of capacity.
Vineyard Wind said that it “is clear that the timing of such an analysis is not compatible with the original timeline” that they had been working with since March 2018. In July the developers said the $2.3 billion project needed the environmental permit by the end of August, or else the development would be at risk of cancellation.
“We are disappointed not to deliver the project on the timeline we had anticipated,” Lars Pedersen, chief executive officer of Vineyard Wind, said in an Aug. 12 statement. “We were less than four months away from launching a new industry in the United States.”
The action led to contrasting reactions from fishermen and environmentalists. Commercial fishermen in Massachusetts and Rhode Island cheered the delay, because they said the project was moving too fast and that their concerns about fish displacement and navigational safety haven’t been answered. Some environmental groups say the decision was a ploy by the Trump administration to halt the offshore wind industry.
The Ocean Energy Management completed site assessment activities for the wind farm in 2014, and Vineyard Wind signed a lease for the project in January 2015. The project has been in a laborious approval process ever since. The federal government reportedly is working within a review window that stretches to next March.
The U.S. offshore wind industry was recently full of optimism in part because of the enthusiastic backing of Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first interior secretary, who saw the sector being a part of the administration’s “American energy dominance” agenda. Zinke left the role earlier this year and the views of his successor, David Bernhardt, are unknown when it comes to offshore wind.
“This highlights the importance of leadership,” Nathanael Greene, a senior renewable energy policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Karma. “There was a change of leadership at the department of interior and when that happens there’s always a learning curve. Zinke supported the project as a clean, domestic source of energy and it will probably take some time before Bernhardt gets behind it too.”
While the U.S. review continues, offshore wind provides enough electricity for 4.5 million homes in the U.K., and is projected to generate over 10% of British electricity by 2020. The world’s largest offshore farm, Hornsea One, is under construction off the Yorkshire Coast and will come online next year with 1.2 gigawatts of capacity.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an accord on July 18 for two wind farms off Long Island that will have almost 1.7 gigawatts of capacity when finished in 2024. There are plans for wind farms in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The timelines and viability of these projects are questionable until they receive required permits.
Vineyard Wind’s’s pledge to go ahead with the project despite the delay is a positive signal for the American offshore wind industry. The U.K., China and Germany are among the countries that have gained expertise and built a new clean industry as the U.S. dithers. The U.S. will have to sprint if it hopes to catch up to the leaders.