Looking to create a sea change in energy production in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker signed “An Act to Promote Energy Diversity” with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2016. A key provision of the legislation mandated that utilities solicit long-term contracts with offshore wind farm developers, with the goal of adding 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2027.
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, where federal and state officials, along with representatives from Vineyard Wind, gathered for a “scoping session” to hear how Islanders feel about having the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the United States — 106 turbines, 700 feet tall, spaced about a mile apart, covering 167,000 acres — being built 14 miles south of home. The facility will produce between 400 and 800 megawatts of electricity.
Tuesday’s Tisbury gathering was one of five scoping sessions to be held this week by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in southeast Massachusetts and Rhode Island, to garner public input for the Vineyard Wind draft environmental impact statement (EIS).
Turnout was robust. The discussion remained even-keeled, which, according to one member of the large BOEM contingent, was a stark contrast to the previous night’s heated scoping session in New Bedford.
Bill White, senior director for offshore wind for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, said with Pilgrim Power Plant going offline next year, and Somerset, last coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts, going offline last year, the state power supply is down significantly, with more closures to come. “We’re going to be impacted more than other regions of the country. Offshore wind can help us keep the lights on, and also meet our emission goals. We pretty much import all of our energy right now to power our economy and our homes. To be able to have our own indigenous resource and get the economic benefits is a very positive development.”
Erich Stephens, chief development officer for Vineyard Wind, told the gathering the facility would create about 40 year-round, full-time jobs on Martha’s Vineyard.
On April 10, state and local politicians joined representatives of Vineyard Wind and Vineyard Power at the Tisbury Wharf Co. for a ceremony to mark the beginning of a Vineyard Wind operations and maintenance facility on Vineyard Haven Harbor.
At Tuesday’s gathering, Vineyard fishermen repeatedly expressed concern over the unknown detriments of the actual construction of 108 wind turbines, and the megawatts of electricity that will travel over the seafloor to the Barnstable substation.
Commercial fisherman Alex Friedman gave kudos to BOEM and Vineyard Wind for their active outreach and efforts to create renewable energy, noting that the water temperature in the Gulf of Maine and surrounding waters is rising faster than anywhere else on the planet.
He went on to state concerns about the noise impacts from pile driving in the construction phase of the project.
“There seem to be a lot of negative impacts on fin fish, especially considering what we call forage species — Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, butterfish, and squid,” he said. “Squid is a very important commercial species for us here in Massachusetts and in Rhode Island. I appreciate that there are studies underway, but without conclusive data as to what the effects of pile driving noise would do to the entire ecosystem, I have a lot of concern.”
Friedman said herring can sense pile driving 80 miles away, and the noise also affects cod and has divided schools of Atlantic mackerel.
Friedman also brought up the unknown long-term effects of sending massive amounts of electricity over the seafloor in Muskeget Channel — a common theme over the evening.
“The construction phase is finite. What concerns me in the long term is the introduction of so much electromagnetic energy going through cables on the ocean floor,” he said. “The risk is enormous. There’s well-documented evidence that many different species, from hummingbirds to sea turtles to yellowfin tuna, utilize electromagnetic spatial recognition for their migration. They osprey had just showed up on the Vineyard. Most of them fly from Venezuela, in the night, without visual cues. It is poorly understood what a large amount of electromagnetic energy does to migration.”
“Those are certainly concerns we’ve heard echoed throughout this process,” Brian Krevor, a BOEM environmental protection specialist, said. “We’re doing sound modeling to see what sounds will be created by the pile driving. From there we’ll look at mitigation measures like bubble curtains and casings around pilings. But we can’t guarantee there won’t be impacts. It will all be analyzed when we decide on the project.”
Julius Lowe asked about data regarding the sound resonance of a field of 80 to 108 spinning turbines. Krevor said the sounds recorded at the Deepwater Wind wind farm off Block Island are less than a passing boat, but also noted there are only five turbines in operation.
Glenn Pacheco expressed concern that fish tend to migrate east to west, and the cables from the wind farm run north to south. Krevor said there are already cables running north-south that carry electricity to the Island.
Todd Goodell, a commercial fisherman with 37 years experience, asked BOEM officials to collect more data before deciding on the Vineyard Wind project. “That designated area has been my backyard. I have major concerns. I have an Area 2 permit, smack-dab in the middle of where these turbines are going,” he said. “There’s going to be a haddock fishery in the next 10, 20 years, just south of the Island which hasn’t been seen since the Russian fleets left. I’d like to see more research done, and I am scared.”
Goodell also said he was concerned about the economic losses Island fishermen would take during the construction phase.
Rachel Pachter, Vineyard Wind vice president of permitting affairs, said the company would be open to compensating fishermen who are compromised during the construction process.
“These public scoping sessions are just the beginning of the environmental review process,” Krevor said. “Public comments are extremely important. Local expertise helps us make better decisions.”
A draft of the Vineyard Wind EIS will be published in the fall of this year, after which there will be a 45-day comment period.
After the environmental impact statement is completed, BOEM can approve the project, approve with conditions, or reject it.
The Vineyard Wind Construction and Operations Plan (COP) can be found at boem.gov/Vineyard-Wind. Comments can also be made at the website. The cutoff date for public comment was initially April 30, but Krevor said BOEM will take comments after that date.
A trove of information on the proposed wind farm can be found at the Vineyard Wind website.
Tuesday’s scoping session comes on the heels of an urgent missive from fishing industry representatives all along the East Coast to Governor Charlie Baker on April 9, asking him to delay this month’s selection of the company that will construct the nation’s first industrial-scale offshore wind project off the coast of Massachusetts.
In a nine-page letter to Baker, the National Coalition of Fishing Communities (NCFC) said outreach by all offshore wind entities has been woefully inadequate, and has amounted to “window dressing”: “We therefore seek your immediate, direct involvement to ensure that our concerns are promptly given the attention they deserve; and if further time is needed to address these issues, then we ask you to consider delaying the April selection.”
If the selection is not delayed, the NCFC urged the commonwealth to scale back the first wind farm to no more than 400 megawatts, to allow fishermen, scientists, and regulators to better determine the impact of offshore wind farms.