On June 27 an Edgartown conservation commission hearing on export cables for the Vineyard Wind offshore wind project saw a packed and divided room, not on just the issue of the cables, but the overall wind project itself. Vineyard Wind has sought approval to bury two cables about a mile off Chappaquiddick along a 12.4- to 13.7-mile path in the Muskeget Channel. The cables are meant to transmit electricity generated from a wind farm south of Martha’s Vineyard to a landfall on Cape Cod.
In May the Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved the cables. At the hearing Thursday, local fishermen raised a litany of questions about the cables, ranging from their electromagnetic effects on sea life to Vineyard Wind’s understanding of sand movement in the Muskeget Channel. Supporters of the project, including several scientists, pointed to the acceleration of climate change, and said that the Vineyard Wind project is critical not only to mitigating the carbon emissions driving its pace, but as an example to the world of the right way forward.
Counter to the opinion of Vineyard Wind and town counsel Ron Rappaport, who was not present at the hearing, the commission voted that the cables are under the jurisdiction of Edgartown, and therefore will be evaluated for their impacts not just through the lens of state law but the bylaws of the town. However, when they returned from a recess for lunch, the commission voted to rescind that decision without explaining the 180° turn. After hours of commentary from the public and Vineyard Wind testimony in what was the third time the matter had come before the conservation commission, the commissioners closed the hearing and left the written record open for a week. On July 10, the commissioners will reconvene at 4 pm to assess Vineyard Wind’s application for cable installation, and possibly vote on it.
Alex Friedman, an oyster farmer and commercial fisherman, said while he is a supporter of alternative energy, he cannot endorse the cables because “the ecological impacts of not just the construction of the cable[s], but the electromagnetic field [EMF] coming from the cable[s], is massive,” and will have “untold effects on fish migration.” Friedman said many marine creatures, including turtles, navigate by sensing magnetism, and the fields emanating from the cables could disrupt such navigation.
“This is too heavy-handed,” he said. “There is not adequate science for what the project will mean for the environment.”
More than one fisherman pointed out there is a major electricity difference between Vineyard Wind’s export cables and the most recent undersea cable Eversource installed in the area.
Eversource spokesman Reid Lamberty told The Times the cable, which stretches between Falmouth and the Vineyard, has a maximum capacity of 19.8 megawatts and 488 amps.
By comparison, Vineyard Wind’s cables have a maximum capacity of 400 megawatts and approximately 1,145 amps, according to Vineyard Wind spokesman Scott Farmelant and Vineyard Wind filings.
Despite the energy they transmit, electromagnetism, as measured in units called milliGauss, would be relatively low from the export cables even if they were exposed and unarmored, Ted Barton, an environmental consultant for Vineyard Wind, said.
However, channel whelk scientist Shelly Edmundson, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust (MVFPT), was wary. “I don’t feel like there’s enough baseline data to make these choices,” she said. “We don’t know, if we put this cable in, what was there and what will change.”
Commercial fisherman David “Tubby” Maderas told the commissioners he was on the water in and around the Muskeget Channel nine months out of the year, and said he regularly sees shoals form and disappear there swiftly, and Vineyard Wind might not appreciate the dredging challenges they face. Furthermore, he said, their work will generate silt that could impact bay scalloping in Edgartown.
“OK, remember this,” he said, “when you have a six-knot tide, southeast flow or a northeast flow, where’s that silt going to go? Just think about it for a second … it’s going to go around Hawes [Shoal], come around Cape Poge Flat, and right into Edgartown. So remember this meeting, in five or six years when you people all go down the market and say, ‘There’s no bay scallops, why?’ You think I’m joking?”
Maderas also described the cables as a potential “fence” that could hamper the movement of high economic-value fisheries like squid and undermine the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby by making the Derby’s namesake fish scarce.
Wes Brighton, a commercial fisherman and a founder of the MVFPT, said, “I just want everyone to know that fishermen care and see firsthand at ground zero the impacts of environmental change and climate change.”
Brighton went on to say that due to the immense passion behind alternative energy, the hazards of facilities that generate it, like Vineyard Wind, aren’t as well scrutinized as traditional energy facilities might be. “This is being rushed,” he said.
He cited a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) “that disputes a lot of their science.”
He questioned how, in the coming years, the effects of EMF from the cables could be adequately assessed. “I encourage everybody to take deep thought about this, and not jump into your camps, and really think about what’s prudent, because we don’t know what the impacts are and we’re messing with the most pristine waters on the East Coast,” he said.
John Keene, president of MVFPT, asked how mobile seabed features Vineyard Wind described as the sand waves and fishermen described as shoals would be dredged and redeposited to make way for a trench-making jet plow. He also asked if Vineyard Wind fully understood the potential for altering the hydrodynamics of the channel, and the potential for unanticipated sand distribution and scouring on the shore.
The reality of climate change
Bill Lake, director of Vineyard Power, Vineyard Wind’s partner on-Island, was one of many people who saw approval as critical to addressing climate change. “It seems to me there’s a consensus in the room that climate change threatens devastating consequences for this Island, including to its fisheries, and that we have to get off of fossil fuels … and use renewables,” he said. Wind is the renewable resource the Northeast Coast has in abundance, Lake said. “It’s simply not possible for us to get off fossil fuels in this area without using offshore wind,” he said. “Offshore wind is our resource. It we don’t use it, the ocean will be devastated by climate change.”
Wes Look, a researcher at the nonpartisan environmental think tank Resources for the Future, and a Vineyard Vision fellow, said, “I just wanted to acknowledge this is a pretty emotional issue, right, for all of us. Our future is at stake.” In general, he said, there isn’t a lot people on the Vineyard can do to combat climate change; however, “this project is an exception.”
“Either way we will have an impact,” he said. “Whether we say no or whether we say yes, this will be the the first fully commercial-scale offshore wind project in North America …” It’s taken years to get a wind farm in the area, he said.
“What is moving fast is the pace of climate change,” Look said. “Just last week in one day, two gigatons of ice was lost from the Greenland Ice Sheet. We’re now seeing the permafrost melt in the Arctic at rates that were expected in 2090.”
Aquinnah energy and climate committee member Noli Taylor said the project has received exhaustive scientific research. “We are out of time to develop new solutions, and as a commission, you have a special opportunity today to move this project forward,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to do it, and it is a risk for our community, but communities all over the world are going to have to take these risks starting right now … We have to step up right now, and this is your moment as a commission to stand up and say, We have to do it, we are doing it.”
Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Principal Sara Dingledy emphasized the jobs the wind farm would create on-Island. “Through the partnership with Vineyard Wind and ACE MV, alongside Mass. Maritime and Bristol Community College, this project also provides a commitment to workforce development that has a huge impact on students at the high school,” she said. Dingledy said she and the high school have been working with Vineyard Wind to create student opportunities to work in the operation and maintenance crew of the project and take home a living wage. “It is something we are thrilled and excited about,” she said.
“We are here because we are at a tipping point that started when the industrial revolution began,” commissioner Geoff Kontje said. The choice before the commission is whether local environmental impact justifies mitigating a “global crisis.”
Kontje said Vineyard Wind’s application was a “test case” for other projects on the horizon. “And as such, we need to do everything in our power to make sure that if we go ahead with this, that it will be done in a way that allows for the local economy to flourish alongside the energy [infrastructure]. I don’t know whether that can actually happen or not.”