Construction on the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm is expected to begin this summer, after the Biden administration gave final approval Tuesday to a project it hopes will herald a new era of wind energy across the United States.
The Vineyard Wind project calls for up to 84 turbines to be installed in the Atlantic Ocean about 12 nautical miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Together, they could generate about 800 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 400,000 homes.
The project would dwarf the scale of the country’s two existing wind farms, off the coasts of Virginia and Rhode Island. Together, they produce just 42 megawatts of electricity.
In addition to Vineyard Wind, a dozen other offshore wind projects along the East Coast are now under federal review. The Interior Department has estimated that by the end of the decade, some 2,000 turbines could be churning in the wind along the coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina.
“A clean energy future is within our grasp in the United States,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Tuesday. “The approval of this project is an important step toward advancing the administration’s goals to create good paying union jobs while combating climate change and powering our nation. Today is one of many actions we are determined to take to open the doors of economic opportunity to more Americans.”
The idea of a wind farm off the Massachusetts coast was conceived two decades ago but ran into repeated setbacks, delays and well-funded opposition from waterfront property owners before the Trump administration moved to cancel the project’s permitting process.
The Biden administration revived the Vineyard Wind project in March as part of its larger push to tackle climate change.
The effort fuses the administration’s goal of cutting planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions with its promise that renewable energy will create new economic opportunities. The administration has pledged to build 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind in the United States by 2030. It’s a target the White House has said would spark $12 billion in capital investments annually, supporting 77,000 direct and indirect jobs by the end of the decade.
But it’s not all smooth waters ahead for offshore wind power. Commercial fishing groups and coastal landowners are expected to sue to stop the projects. Some environmental groups worry that they will harm marine life.
And some economists are skeptical that wind farms can create jobs on the scale predicted by the Biden administration. The supply chain for wind farms — and the manufacturing jobs associated with it — is mostly located in Europe.
But union leaders, heavily courted by the Biden administration, said they are optimistic that the large-scale projects could spur companies to manufacture massive wind turbines and related equipment in the United States. “I think it’s an important message that these jobs will be good union jobs with good wages and benefits,” said Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council. He praised the administration for approving a project that is first of its kind and said that labor leaders have sought to ensure that the project will be built and maintained by union workers. The administration estimates that the project will create about 3,600 jobs.
The $2.8 billion project is a joint venture of the energy firms Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. “We are very excited and proud to be part of the birth of an incredibly important new industry for the U.S.,” said Dennis V. Arriola, Avangrid’s chief executive officer.
Electricity generated by the Vineyard Wind turbines will travel via cables buried 6 feet below the ocean floor to Cape Cod, where they would connect to a substation and feed into the New England grid. The company said that it expects to begin delivering wind-powered electricity in 2023.
The Biden administration said that it intended to fast-track permits for other projects off the Atlantic Coast and that it would offer $3 billion in federal loan guarantees for offshore wind projects and invest in upgrades to ports across the United States to support wind turbine construction. “It’s a big deal, and not just for Vineyard Wind. This is the icebreaker, it’s the first one, it’s charting the course,” Rafael McDonald, an electricity and renewable analyst at IHS Markit, said after the Biden administration released its initial environmental review in March. “There’s all this pent-up demand from state mandates, and Vineyard Wind is the bellwether.”
If President Joe Biden’s offshore wind targets are met, it could avoid 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, while creating new jobs and even new industries along the way, the administration said. That would also accomplish a significant chunk of the president’s pledge to cut U.S. emissions roughly in half by 2035.
Many Republicans are skeptical of Biden’s job creation claims and say the president’s plans — particularly his suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters — are already hurting union workers in fossil fuel industries. “The Biden administration is pushing expensive fantasy jobs, and killing real ones at a time that America cannot afford to lose these jobs,” Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, said Tuesday.
Offshore wind, which is booming in Europe, is a nascent industry in the United States. But several Atlantic Coast states, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia, have committed to buying more than 25,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2035, according to the American Clean Power Association.
That alarms the fishing industry, which is worried boats and trawlers will have difficulty navigating around the hulking turbines, the largest of which now have rotor diameters the length of two football fields. That could limit the amount of seafood they can catch, potentially affecting millions of dollars in revenue.
“For the past decade, fishermen have participated in offshore wind meetings whenever they were asked and produced reasonable requests, only to be met with silence,” said Anne Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a coalition of fishing groups. “From this silence now emerges unilateral action and a clear indication that those in authority care more about multinational businesses and energy politics than our environment, domestic food sources, or U.S. citizens.”
Amanda Lefton, the director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said that the agency would continue to seek input from fishing groups as the project moves forward. “We are considering those impacts and considering members of the fishing community in that process,” she said. “We can ensure that we have the best science to help address some of the concerns that are out there.”