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US greenlights 800-MW Vineyard Wind offshore project

11 May 2021 Amena Saiyid

The US Department of the Interior has given Vineyard Wind the go ahead to start building what would be the nation's largest commercial offshore wind facility to date by issuing a record of decision, which spells out where and how many turbines can be installed.

With this decision in hand, Vineyard Wind now has the approval to build and install 84 or fewer wind turbines for a total of 800 MW of capacity at a distance of about 12 nautical miles each from the Massachusetts shorelines of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

Slated for completion in the second quarter of 2024, the facility will meet 10% of Massachusetts' power needs, while giving a huge boost to the Biden-Harris administration's goal of reaching 30 GW of offshore wind by the end of the decade.

President Joe Biden has made offshore wind generation a key part of plans to halve the nation's GHGs and to decarbonize the power sector entirely by 2035.

With this announcement, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said "a clean energy future is within our grasp in the United States," as she termed the approval of the project "an important step" towards clean power generation.

Interior on the move

As of now, the US has only two offshore wind farms totaling 42 MW of capacity that are operational: the 30-MW, five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island waters; and the 12-MW, two-turbine Dominion Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project in federal waters off Virginia.

IHS Markit data shows the US has at least 21.9 GW of offshore wind projects in the pipeline awaiting various approvals, including Vineyard Wind.

Interior's announcement follows less than a fortnight after the agency said it was starting to prepare an environmental impact statement for Revolution Wind's 880-MW facility off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, which IHS Markit data shows as coming online in 2025 if all the approvals come in a timely fashion and construction starts on schedule.

Vineyard Wind has been trying to obtain federal approval for its project since submitting an application in 2017, though its experience across two presidential administrations is perhaps not illustrative of how new applicants will be treated.

Under the Trump administration, Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) unit indicated the developer would have to start the permitting process again because it was seeking to use a larger turbine than identified in its original application, which led Vineyard Wind to ask to withdraw its application in December 2020. Many observers saw this move by the prior administration as a stalling tactic.

The Biden administration vowed to bring the project back on track, starting with approval of the project's final environmental impact analysis in early March.

At that time, the only step remaining between the actual start of construction was the record of decision.

"It's been a long road to get to this point, but ultimately we are reaching the end of this process with the strongest possible project," said Lars Pedersen, CEO of Vineyard Wind, in an 11 May statement. Vineyard Wind is a joint venture between Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc., and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.

In the record of decision for Vineyard, Interior said it will allow the developer to construct and install 84 or few wind turbines in 100 of the 106 locations that Vineyard Wind originally proposed. With each turbine placed one nautical mile apart, the agency said this preferred layout would have less visual impact and consequently less impact on shore activities and recreation. This preferred layout also would have less of an impact on navigation and vessel traffic because the government was not allowing placement of six turbines in the northern portion of the project, which it said is closer to ports and other shore facilities commonly used by recreational vessels.

Biden administration is serious

The pace at which construction of Vineyard Wind was approved is proof "the administration is serious about moving offshore wind projects forward," according to Rear Admiral (Ret.) Samuel De Bow, who was involved in developing Rhode Island's special area zone management plan as director of the University of Rhode Island's Center Of Excellence in Research on Offshore Renewable Energy.

Calling Vineyard Wind's record of decision "an important milestone for the offshore wind industry," said De Bow, who is currently a senior adviser at the environmental and water permitting firm of Dawson & Associates. "BOEM as the lead federal agency on offshore wind has made it a priority and really figured out how to get it done."

To support efforts to meet the 2030 target of 30 GW, BOEM in late March said it anticipates initiating environmental reviews for up to 10 additional projects later this year.

BOEM also said it will advance new lease sales and complete reviews of at least 16 construction and operations plans by 2025, which the Biden-Harris administration said represented more than 19 GW of capacity.

'Vital downpayment'

Wind group advocates were ecstatic over the announcement, with Gregory Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, calling the final approval "a vital down payment" on the goal of 30 GW by 2030.

De Bow said he is pretty confident the administration will reach its 30 GW goal, pointing to the 1.1-GW Ocean Wind project that Ørsted, a Danish energy company, and PSEG, an New Jersey-based electric utility, have proposed to meet New Jersey's goal of obtaining 7.5 GW of offshore wind by 2035.

The construction and operations plan for Ocean Wind is being reviewed right now, and BOEM said it already has started preparing an environmental impact statement for this project, De Bow said.

BOEM also is involved in reviewing the construction and operations plan of the 132-MW South Fork offshore project to be built in Rhode Island Sound and supply power to Long Island Sound. However, this project has run into some roadblocks over a compensation agreement for fishermen. Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee, a Democrat, has asked state regulators to give Ørsted and Eversource more time to work out the agreement.

Offshore wind gathering momentum

While the majority of offshore wind activity is concentrated in the Atlantic Coast, Oregon is moving ahead with studying the potential of this renewable source.

By a 56-0 vote on 27 April, the House of Representatives in the Oregon State Legislature approved a bill establishing a task force to explore developing up to 3 GW of floating offshore wind facilities, which are built in deeper waters than their fixed-bottom offshore counterparts, thereby expanding the viable area for wind energy development. The bill is now set to be considered by the state Senate Committee on Energy and Environment, which has scheduled a hearing on it for 13 May.

Heather Zichal, CEO of the nonprofit trade group American Clean Power Association, said the US should take advantage of the gathering momentum in the offshore wind space.

"Now is the time to push forward on offshore wind, catch up to global competitors, and decarbonize our electric grid, so that the US can deliver economic and environmental benefits to our citizens and combat climate change," Zichal said 11 May.

Posted 11 May 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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