Offshore wind progress report: Politics and science

State officials and developers present data and get some complaints

Deepwater Wind New England turbine under construction with fishing boats nearby. —Duffy and Shanley

Every chair was full on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Vineyard Haven Council on Aging as eight speakers — five government officials and three offshore wind company representatives — presented progress reports on the development of the turbine farms off Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.  Deepwater Wind New England has already completed a five-turbine farm off Block Island, but along with DONG Energy/Bay State Wind, and Vineyard Wind (formerly OffshoreMW), it is now developing projects (August 7, 2013, “Deepwater wins offshore wind auction”) in Massachusetts waters.

Audience members listened attentively, but also had some pointed questions and comments for the speakers. Menemsha fisherman Paul McDonald spoke of a research vessel refusing to answer a radio hail. Peter Cabana of Tisbury was irritated that government officials had still not worked out how the power was to be distributed between Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel noted that after initial conversations with a task force of Islanders, developers had largely ignored the task force.

Bruce Carlisle, director of the state Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), outlined plans for the routing of electricity transmission cables from the turbines to the onshore power grid. He faced some tough comments from the audience. Mr. Cabana, a Tisbury resident and former Bechtel engineer who has worked on large-scale energy projects around the world, objected to the fact that the routes had not yet been chosen and that the ISO (independent system operator; the organization that operates the regional power grid) very likely does not want all the power coming into the grid in one place. Mr. Israel was concerned that each developer would have its own transmission line, increasing the impact. Mr. Carlisle offered to speak with Mr. Cabana in depth, and assured Mr. Israel that the CZM would “avoid spaghetti” and create defined corridors for transmission lines. “This is still developing,” he said.

Present state of development

While the Block Island five-turbine group owned by Deepwater Wind New England is in operation and is “about to go commercial,” according to its representative Aileen Kenney, the tracts southwest and south of Martha’s Vineyard leased by Deepwater, DONG Energy/Bay State Wind, and Vineyard Wind (with the participation of Vineyard Power; July 20, “Edgartown selectmen receive offshore wind update”) are either still doing geophysical and geotechnical surveys or have just finished them.

Jessica Stromberg of the U.S. Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM) explained that developers must first prepare a site assessment plan (SAP) and then a construction and operations plan (COP) before beginning construction of the turbine farms. The geophysical and geotechnical surveys, which collect data from the atmosphere, water column, and sediment, are the basis for the SAPs.

Rhode Island–based Deepwater Wind New England submitted its SAP in April 2016, according to Ms. Stromberg. As a result it excluded 35 percent of its leased area from development because of environmental concerns and the presence of unexploded ordnance. its five-turbine project off Block Island is the first North American offshore wind farm to be completed. Deepwater will soon be laying transmission cables to eastern Long Island, where it will sell 90 megawatts (MW) of power. The firm has a bid on a contract to sell 210 MW in Rhode Island; that cable will come ashore in Narragansett Bay. Deepwater Wind has financial backing from a New York–based private equity firm called D.E. Shaw and Co. According to Meaghan Wims, a spokesperson for Deepwater Wind, the Massachusetts 200-turbine project will be producing power by the early 2020s.

Bay State Wind (the local name for the Danish Oil and Natural Gas or DONG project) was issued leases in April 2015, and its SAP is due in April 2017. Their geophysical surveys were begun in April and the geotechnical ones in October. Results from these — taking into account fishing activities and other uses — have led to a reduction in the area it intends to develop to 79 percent of the original leased tract. The firm plans to produce 1,000 MW in Massachusetts, but the number of turbines has not been determined.

DONG Energy is largely owned by the Danish government (although a subsidiary of Goldman-Sachs owns 18 percent of the shares). According to Bay State Wind representative Carolyn Heeps, DONG Energy is producing more than 3,000 MW of energy from offshore wind in northern Europe (with another 3,000 MW under construction), and has recently completed its 1,000th offshore turbine. Ms. Heeps said that the transmission line from the Bay State Wind tract will come ashore at Brayton Point in Somerset.

Richard André of Vineyard Power, the Island-based community organization allied with developer OffshoreMW, which has been newly renamed Vineyard Wind, described the state of their work. Like Bay State Wind, Vineyard Wind is backed by Danish money, but in the form of a consortium of 21 pension funds called CIP, Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (Sept. 2, “Danish company backs Vineyard offshore wind project”). CIP has invested in onshore wind in the U.S. and the U.K., biomass projects, and offshore wind in Germany and Scotland.

Vineyard Wind, which was awarded its leases at the same time as Bay State Wind, finished geophysical surveys “a few weeks ago,” and the geotechnical surveys are still underway.

Overview from the state

Bill White, senior director of Offshore Wind Sector Development in the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), reiterated the plan to supply one-third of homes in the state with renewable energy by 2027. “This will be our own power,” he said, “not imported.” He also promised 1,000 jobs would be associated with the construction of the offshore wind farms over a two-year buildout period. “Many power plants are retiring soon,” he continued, “so new generation is needed.”

Mr. White noted that wind energy is not a new technology. “The Europeans have been moving forward with this for 25 years,” White said, “and we like to think they’ve made our mistakes for us. Almost every East Coast state has plans to develop offshore wind.” He reminded his audience that state legislation passed in August to develop 1,600 MW of offshore wind by June 2027. The projects will prevent 2.4 million tons of greenhouse gases from reaching the atmosphere, he noted.

During the planning of these offshore wind farms, the state has been meeting with stakeholder task forces — including those representing fisheries and environmental interests — since 2009, holding hundreds of public meetings, according to Mr. White. Of the original leased area off Massachusetts, he said, 60 percent has been put off-limits to development for various reasons.

White touted the infrastructure that has already been developed to serve the offshore energy sites, including the Energy Center’s wind-technology testing center in Charlestown, which is the largest such facility in North America. It is used to accelerate the aging of turbine blades in order to improve their safety and efficiency. In addition, the port facilities at New Bedford have been updated to meet special requirements for servicing turbine farms. Still under study are sites for manufacturing that will serve the ongoing maintenance needs of the offshore infrastructure.

The data is available and coming in

Tyler Studds, senior manager of renewable energy strategy at MassCEC, outlined the data that had been gathered from the ocean and atmosphere (together they are referred to as “metaocean” data) and from wildlife surveys. The region south of Martha’s Vineyard had been little studied. There was, for example, no existing data for wind at hub height (320 to 360 feet above the sea surface) in the area. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) installed lidar (“light radar,” using lasers to detect wind and transmit the data) at its coastal observatory a mile south of the Island, and has been collecting data since Oct. 7.

Wildlife surveys, said Mr. Studds, began in 2011. As with the ocean and atmosphere, the area was little studied. The whale and turtle data were collected from 76 aerial surveys conducted in the study area between October 2011 and June 2015.  The data was supplemented by over 1,000 days of continuous underwater acoustic recording for whales. Mr. Studds presented data for right whales, because they are endangered; the animals were found to be present only between December and April. A total of 60 animals were seen (they can be identified in photographs as individuals by unique patterns on their backs and flukes), but passive acoustic data — processed and interpreted by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. — suggested more animals may be present. The Cornell lab is home to the Bioacoustics Research Program, which has developed computer software that can process digital audio data to distinguish among whale species and produce more accurate counts.

According to the report published by the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, from which Mr. Studds drew his data, six species of large and medium-size whales were sighted in the study area: the North Atlantic right whale, humpback whale, fin whale, sei whale, minke whale, and sperm whale. There were large whale sightings during all seasons of the year, with the majority in spring and summer, and occasional sightings in the autumn. There were no sperm whale sightings during spring months.

Leatherback turtles, which are classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN),  were found to be concentrated solely over the shoals south of Nantucket, outside the leased areas. Loggerhead turtles, which like the leatherbacks are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, were sighted in the leased areas. Only six Kemp’s ridley turtles were sighted during the summer and autumn of 2012. The species is critically endangered, according to the IUCN. All sea turtle species were present in summer and autumn, but rare in the spring, and absent in the winter.

Researchers from the College of Staten Island recorded 25 species of seabirds from a total of 38 aerial surveys conducted between November 2011 and January 2015. Oceangoing ducks were concentrated in two hot spots that were also outside the leased areas.

Mr. Studds said his group recommended collecting more data and taking into account the seasonal abundance of marine mammals during the construction phase of the turbine projects. Some construction operations are noisy and should be carried out when marine mammals are not likely to be in the region.

“Using this study as a baseline,” the report recommended, “a long-term study on potential displacement and disturbance should be designed and implemented. It will require comparable, but targeted surveys both during construction and after full operations have commenced to answer the questions about wind farm effects on large whales and sea turtles.”

Where the cables will go

Bruce Carlisle of CZM, outlined plans for the routing of electricity transmission cables from the turbines to the onshore power grid. The ocean management plan, which Mr. Carlisle said was the first in the nation, was first released in 2009 and updated in 2015. It is meant to take into account the concerns of the fisheries industry and environmentalists with respect to laying cables just beneath the ocean floor. The geotechnical surveys, which examine the seafloor sediments, provide data for these decisions.

Mr. Carlisle described the situation as a balance between protecting the environment and minimizing the distance traversed. Also of concern was finding soft substrate where the cable could be easily and safely buried, so as to not to hinder bottom fishing. According to the ocean management plan, “While state permits and licenses have generally established 6 feet as a target burial depth, it is recognized that in some locations this depth may not be possible and in other areas it may not be necessary.”

The plan recommends excavation methods that minimize damage to the seafloor: “Such methods include jet plowing, remotely operated seabed tractors, and some towed seabed plows. In locations where seafloor bottom conditions prevent target burial depth, cover is required to protect the cable. Generally, past practices have involved the addition of rock armoring, concrete mattresses, or clean sand sediments.”

Mr. Carlisle identified five 345-kilovolt (kV) substations in Massachusetts as possible grid tie-in points: Brayton Point Substation in Somerset (already selected by Bay State Wind); Canal Substation in Sandwich; Oak Street Substation in Barnstable; and Carver Substation in Carver. (The management plan lists additional tie-in points in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.)

Routes to these locations were chosen based on an analysis that identified areas of “potential biological and physical environmental impacts, incompatibilities, limitations and specifications of transmission cable installation operations, and/or adverse interactions with existing uses and sites to avoid.” As a result of these analyses, “four 500-meter-wide corridors were mapped: 1) a northern route in Buzzards Bay, 2) a southern route in Buzzards Bay, 3) a route in Vineyard Sound, and 4) a route through Muskeget channel into the western part of Nantucket Sound.”

Mr. Carlisle noted that the plan called for horizontal directional drilling under barrier beaches, eelgrass beds, shellfish areas, and coastal marshes to minimize environmental impact there, and for avoiding offshore Army Corps of Engineers dump sites. The corridors, he said, have not been chosen, and developers were also allowed to choose their own.

Fish resource areas that were special, sensitive, and unique (SSU) were not identified in the 2009 plan as a protected area to be addressed by cable projects. But the 2015 revised plan stated, “Cables should avoid this SSU resource where feasible because it is an area of concern.  In small sections of important fish resources SSU areas, where avoidance is not possible, consultation with [state] Marine Fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the fisheries technical work group will help to identify whether there are specific locations of significance and whether measures are needed to avoid resources and impacts through TOY [time of year] controls, such that the construction of a project will not occur when the SSU resource is present or may be adversely affected.”