On a cold June day, with the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard just above the distant horizon, a low-riding, green-hulled ship ended up hammering a steel column some 100 feet into the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.
This was the beginning of the construction of the first large wind farm on the coast of the United States, a project with the scale to make a major contribution to the Northeast power grid.
For some of those watching from a nearby boat, driving into the first piling marked a milestone they had worked two decades to achieve. The $4 billion project, known as Vineyard Wind, is expected to be generating electricity by the end of the year.
“It has been really tough,” said Rachel Pachter, chief development officer at Vineyard Offshore, the US arm of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, a Danish renewable energy developer that co-owns the wind farm. Getting a large energy project near population centers to this point has required overcoming countless regulatory hurdles and overcoming potential opposition and litigation.
“You won’t see big infrastructure projects in New England anymore,” he said, “and certainly not in places where they are highly visible.”
Ms. Pachter has seen the difficulties firsthand. Starting as an intern right out of college in 2002, he worked for more than a decade on a project called Cape Wind in Massachusetts; It ultimately failed, partly because of intense opposition over the years by people such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died in 2009, and billionaire William Koch. There is also an atmosphere of vocal opposition in the Vineyard Wind. Some in the fishing industry say the turbines will make their job nearly impossible.
However, Ms. Pachter has helped organize a campaign of community outreach, job creation and funding that has ultimately reached a point where, in industry parlance, steel is going into the water.
In the coming months, 62 turbines, each up to 850 feet tall (higher than any building in Boston) and with blades about 350 feet long, will be installed on the ocean floor 15 miles off Martha’s Vineyard, the island where former President Barack Obama And Bill Clinton is on vacation.
A cable carrying electricity created by the rotating rotors will land on a beach in Barnstable, Cape Cod, and then pass to consumers in the state. Vineyard Wind says its machines will generate enough electricity to light 400,000 homes.
Wind farms are usually built surprisingly fast once construction begins. Vineyard Wind’s chief executive Klaus Möller, who is Danish, said he expected Vineyard Wind – “Touch Wood” – to be completed next summer.
The situation looked quite different in 2019 when the Trump administration thwarted Vineyard Wind’s plans by stalling further studies that lasted two years, putting the proposal in jeopardy. But the Biden administration increasingly wants to make offshore wind a bigger part of the effort to build renewable energy and related jobs, and it pushed Vineyard Wind to 2021.
The construction and installation of giant machines at sea in the United States is a fairly new proposition. There are only a few other small offshore wind farms in the country. Another, about a fifth the size of Vineyard Wind, is expected to come online this year off Long Island.
Europe has thousands of offshore turbines, and much of the expertise and equipment used to build Vineyard Wind, including the specialized vessels used to hammer the turbine towers into the ocean floor, is from across the Atlantic.
Wind developers also say they are hindered by a century-old law, the Jones Act, which bans the use of US ports to launch foreign-manufactured ships. To comply, Vineyard Wind plans to offload the turbine components at a port in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and then ship the assembled machines to the site on US-flagged barges – a process that adds cost.
Industry executives and analysts say the construction of this first giant US wind farm will help clear the way for similar plans.
“If they can get it done, it will open doors,” said Dan Reicher, assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration and an advisor on the California proposal.
In fact, according to Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm, a series of wind farms are planned that could increase Vineyard Wind’s capacity by about 75 times. About 80 percent of this area is away from the east coast.
For Christian Skekbaek, founder of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, the east coast “resembles the North Sea in many ways, with a shallow seabed, a sandy bottom and high wind speeds.”
Vineyard Wind executives like Ms. Pachter are turning their attention to other wind projects, including one near Vineyard Wind and another off New York and a third on the West Coast off Humboldt County in northern California.
The company acquired acreage for Vineyard Wind from asset management major Blackstone in 2016. Mr. Schekbeck said his company has decided to bring in a partner from the United States and turned to AvanGrid, the American subsidiary of Iberdrola, a large Spanish utility.
While there are critics of the Vineyard Wind, the opposition has been less intense than that fought by the Cape Wind. One reason is visibility. The project is further away from land, in the Atlantic, while Cape Wind was located between Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and another island, Nantucket. The company says that after construction, the tops of the turbines will be barely visible from the islands.
Massachusetts residents also say that from the earliest stages, developers took their concerns, such as the protection of endangered whales, seriously. “They’ve taken those things to heart, and reduced what they could and came up with a very responsible project,” said Andrew Gottlieb, director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, an environmental advocacy group. “
Some islands and towns along the Massachusetts coast benefit economically from the Vineyard Wind. The town of Barnstable, which opposed Cape Wind, sought to become the landing site for cables from Vineyard Wind. The Benefit: A $16 million payback and aid in the construction of a new sewer system, saving taxpayers millions, said Town Manager Mark Ells.
The company also says that a maintenance center for turbines, which is being built on Martha’s Vineyard, will create 90 full-time jobs — a significant number for a vacation destination that primarily provides summer jobs to residents.
“It’s a really big deal for the island to get 90 years of full-time jobs,” said Dylan Fernandes, who represents the island in the Massachusetts legislature.
On the other hand, many of the manufacturing jobs that could be produced by offshore wind in the United States have not yet been realized. While the turbines will be supplied by General Electric, the cabin-like structures called nacelles, which contain the gearing and electronics, will be built in France. The first blade is coming from a factory in Canada. GE has said it will build two factories in New York if it receives enough orders.
Fishing groups are prominent among the opponents of offshore wind. Industry people say the turbines hinder their ability to catch fish, and that Washington hasn’t consulted them enough when awarding the leases. They are afraid of a beach lined with wind farms.
“Vineyard Wind is the first of many projects that are threatening commercial fishing on the East Coast of the United States with extinction,” said Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison for Seafreeze Shoreside, a fishing company based in Point Judith, RI. Is.”
Ms Lapp said the wind farm site was a prime summer spot for squid which account for much of her company’s business. They said boats that netted squid would not be able to fish safely between the turbines and the towering structures would interfere with their radars, jeopardizing safety.
Vineyard Wind has tried to calm the fishing industry by chartering boats to patrol the construction zone and providing about $40 million to make up for potential lost catches. But Seefreeze and others have filed a lawsuit seeking to suspend the Vineyard Wind lease, arguing that in the race to secure renewable energy, the federal government has ignored its own environmental regulations.
However, at this point in time, the promise of offshore wind and vast amounts of clean energy seems to have a shot at moving forward.
“Just creating one project will change a lot,” Ms. Pachter said.