Plans for an offshore wind development project in federal waters south of Martha’s Vineyard continue to move ahead, state and federal government officials told a large audience at a meeting at the Katharine Cornell Memorial Theatre last week.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) are coordinating plans to develop a process for commercial leasing of offshore parcels for wind power projects. Officials from both agencies attended the June 9 information session.
“What Massachusetts thinks is that potentially over a decade or more, potentially 4,000 megawatts of clean, renewable, Massachusetts-made electricity could be generated in this area,” EOEEA assistant secretary for federal affairs Bill White said. “Just to give you some context, 4,000 megawatts, that’s four gigawatts, which would basically power about 72,000 homes in Massachusetts on an electricity basis. So it is a significant resource.”
BOEMRE is working closely with several states along the East and West Coasts to pursue offshore energy development and coordinating federal-state task forces in some of these states, including Massachusetts.
Maureen Bornholdt, program manager for BOEMRE’s office of offshore alternative energy programs, provided a Powerpoint presentation with an overview of the Massachusetts program to date and an outline of the next steps in what appears to be a lengthy and complicated process.
BOEMRE Massachusetts published a Request for Interest (RFI) in December 2010 for commercial leasing for wind power on parcels on the outer continental shelf (OCS) offshore of Massachusetts. At that time the area included approximately 3,000 square miles of federal waters. The area is about 12 nautical miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The bureau received 248 comments in response, Ms. Bornholdt said. The majority of concerns focused on issues such as community-owned wind energy projects, shipping and navigation, fisheries, marine mammals, birds, visual impacts, and Indian tribe concerns.
In response to those comments, BOERME announced, at a joint meeting of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island renewable energy task forces in May, that it would reduce the offshore Massachusetts OCS area under consideration for future commercial wind energy leasing by about 56 percent.
BOEMRE received 11 RFI’s from 10 entities, including Vineyard Power (VP), a community-owned energy cooperative based on Martha’s Vineyard. VP responded to the RFI in partnership with offshore wind developer OffshoreMW.
Other companies that expressed interest included big developers such as Condor Wind Energy, NRG Bluewater Wind Massachusetts, and Neptune Wind LLC filed two submissions.
Ms. Bornholdt said BOEMRE evaluated submissions for legal, technical, and financial qualifications, and determined eight companies are “legally qualified” to hold an OCS lease, including OffshoreMW. The bureau is currently reviewing the companies’ applications on the basis of their technical and financial capabilities.
What happens next?
At the time of the RFI, BOEMRE had not yet determined what the process would be from application to actual lease. Ms. Bornholdt said as a next step, BOEMRE would identify the area for the next planning notice, draft a planning notice, and seek task force and stakeholder comment.
After publication of the next planning notice and consideration of responses, the bureau will determine whether the process moving forward will be competitive, non-competitive, or both, and publish appropriate leasing notices. VP members lobbied BOEMRE with letters in support of a “multi-factored approach” in which community-owned projects such as theirs would be given preference.
After leases are issued, developers have five years to collect site-specific data in order to prepare a construction and operations plan. During that time BOEMRE would conduct environmental and technical reviews of a lessee’s site assessment plan.
“It’s not just because they get the lease that they get to build,” Ms. Bornholdt said. “If they get the lease, they get to collect the data and have to come in and tell us what they’re going to build, and then we get to review that.”
Leaseholders also must submit construction and operations plans and prepare a navigational risk assessment. The bureau subsequently prepares an environmental impact statement and conducts additional reviews.
Ms. Bornholdt emphasized that throughout the process, there will be many opportunities for public comment through stakeholder meetings, task force meetings, and draft environmental impact statement hearings and comment periods.
At the end of the process, a lease would grant a developer a 25-year period to construct and generate electricity.
Questions from the audience
Before opening the floor to questions from the audience, Mr. White said that questions about the cost-effectiveness of wind energy projects are technically not part of the permitting process.
“This process is really to determine whether these projects could actually meet environmental thresholds,” he said.
Despite that caveat, Mr. White encouraged the audience to participate, with the reminder that, “No question is too mundane and no question is too complex.”
The crowd included a familiar roster of the Island’s proponents and opponents of wind energy, many Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) staff members and commissioners, and Vineyard Power members. Attorney Nell Coogan, Martha’s Vineyard legislative liaison for state Rep. Timothy Madden, attended, as did Kevin Hough, district representative for Congressman Bill Keating.
MVC commissioner Doug Sederholm of Chilmark asked whether the U.S. could learn anything about improvement in wind energy cost factors over time from Europe, which is 20 years ahead in wind turbine development. Mr. Sederholm also serves as chairman of the commission’s Wind Energy Plan Work Group.
Since turbines in Europe generally are in shallower water, Ms. Bornholdt said the federal government proposes to find out what it actually costs to physically get a wind turbine in U.S. waters. Another challenge is that the U.S. does not have offshore construction ships, she said.
Dukes County manager Russell Smith asked about decommissioning wind turbines. “Developers will have to decommission them to 15 feet below the water,” Ms. Bornholdt said. “We don’t want old technology out there. We will require them to resubmit proposals to continue to the next generation.”
MVC commissioner and renewable energy advocate Peter Cabana of Tisbury asked whether developers would be responsible for cables to transmit wind energy generated to land or if there would be a common cable used by all.
Mr. White said that one of the things Massachusetts did in conjunction with BOEMRE in issuing the RFI was to ask developers to think about that issue.
“A couple of people came back with the suggestion of a trunk line,” he said. “Developers would collaborate with independent transmission business owners.”
“We could require that there are common trunk lines as a regulatory option,” Ms. Bornholdt added.
Last week’s presentation and additional information about offshore wind development projects in Massachusetts and other coastal states is available online at the BOEMRE website.