The Biden administration has approved America's first large-scale offshore wind power project. But for every supporter, it seems there are detractors raising questions. Lisa Fletcher takes a look at the pros and cons of reaping the wind.
Two centuries ago, New Bedford, Massachusetts was known throughout the world as the greatest whaling port and the richest city per capita in the world.
All that, based on the harvest of whale oil to light 18th-century America.
Now, the city is poised for a new venture to bring light to the land, through the largest offshore wind project to date. The port that once launched whaling ships, will now serve to launch turbines for the wind farm.
The site for Vineyard Wind is out to sea, 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
In the initial phase, up to 62 wind turbines, with a goal of producing enough energy to power up to 400,000 homes. The size of Vineyard Wind-1 is over 260 square miles of ocean.
The project is the first "major" offshore wind project in U.S. waters. A smaller wind farm near Block Island, off the Rhode Island coast, began operating in 2016.
It is a critical piece of the Biden administration’s plan to grow renewable energy in the U.S. and got glowing praise during a hearing of the house foreign relations committee, led by Congressman William Keating, whose district will reap the proposed benefits.
Congressman William Keating: The nation's first commercial scale offshore wind farm, and the linchpin to offshore wind all down the Eastern coast through the United States.
The project’s approval was helped by the momentum of a new administration. Timing is everything, but so is location. The Atlantic waters are very favorable for sustained wind, critical to turning the giant turbines.
But those Atlantic waters are also very close to two of the favorite summer spots for the rich and famous. Martha’s Vineyard notably in the news last summer, as the spot for former President Obama’s exclusive 60th birthday party.
A prior project called Cape Wind fizzled, when island dwellers raised protests including Senator Ted Kennedy, who, along with other reasons, objected to having the turbines obstruct the ocean horizon.
The new project is pushed further offshore, but some of the old issues, and concerns remain.
Ron Smolowitz: I think it puts a lot of fisheries at risk.
Ron Smolowitz is a former sea captain, who worked for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA as we know it.
Smolowitz: The amount of wind farms they're proposing will displace fisheries.
Lisa: Nature is pretty adaptive. What makes you think that the fish won't adapt and the migration patterns won't adapt and the fishermen won't adapt and just find the fish where they're moving to?
Smolowitz: The fish will adapt, okay. The fishermen can adapt, but they'll need funding.
From the perspective of the old men and the sea, the impending disaster could be to an industry and image that defines New Bedford. It has been one of the most productive fishing ports on the east coast. The scallop harvest alone averages around $400 million a year.
Lisa: Vineyard wins is setting up a fund much like what you're suggesting to compensate fishermen. Is it enough?
Smolowitz: Nowhere near enough. I think they have a compensation fund of about $30 million to $40 million over the life of the project, which could be 30 years. So, we're talking about a million dollars. One scallop vessel growth stock is $2 million a year and there's 342 scallop vessels. And that's just one fishery.
The balance in economies is the projected 3,600 jobs to be created in the startup phase. Congressman William Keating teased to tens of thousands of jobs in the decade ahead.
Keating: And create tens of thousands of good paying union jobs with more than 44,000 workers employed in offshore wind by 2030.
But the Vineyard Wind project, as a startup offshore project, ran into a storm before they started the first platform: moving materials and a century old statute called the Jones Act.
Lars Pedersen: It's impossible to talk about offshore wind without mentioning the Jones Act.
That’s Lars Pedersen, CEO of Vineyard Wind. He cancelled an interview with us but appeared at the friendly House hearing.
Pedersen: Due to the infancy of the industry in the U.S., there are currently no U.S. flat jack-up installation vessels large enough to install the components for our first project.
The Jones Act was created to protect the U.S. merchant marine business. It mandates that all goods shipped between U.S. ports must be transported on U.S. ships. But there are no U.S. ships at present that can carry the massive platform structures to install them off the Vineyard.
Until the U.S. ship infrastructure is built, parts will be shipped across the Atlantic to an installation barge, and never touch an American port. The ship traffic alone, from Europe to the U.S., and from New Bedford carrying the turbines to the site, raises yet another concern.
Mark Baumgartner: Right whales don't die of natural causes. They don't live to old age. Every single one of them eventually gets killed, but through some industrial accident.
Mark Baumgartner is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The tremendous increase in ship traffic is going to mean a lot more whales are going to be hit by ship propellers, called ship strikes. That includes an endangered species: the right whale.
Baumgartner: And that's why thinking about how we can have a sustainable wind energy offshore, wind energy, and do it in a way that doesn't impact these animals is so important. The industrial activity will increase shipping markedly, both during the construction phase, as well as during the maintenance phase. So, we got together and built a system listening for whales, and we're doing that by listening for the sounds that the whales make.
That is the sound of a right whale. Listening, and tracking in real time, could provide information on where the whales are, and that could be relayed to ship captains, to avoid deadly whale strikes.
Lisa: You mentioned that a wind energy company paid for this buoy. It's just about to go into the water. Some people might see that as a conflict of interest with industry and science and industry paying for your equipment. Is that a conflict of interest?
Baumgartner: Here at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, we do two things basically is we do science and we do technology development. So, if I didn't provide this, this technology, I think that would be a bigger problem than managing conflict of interest issues with these companies. I understand there's a slippery slope there, but we also have an obligation to use the technology that we've developed to actually help these animals.
Sharyl (on-camera): At least three lawsuits have been filed against the federal government, all over concerns that environmental reviews were fast-tracked in order to meet the Biden administration’s goals for offshore wind generation.
Vineyard Wind, who cancelled an interview with Full Measure, on its website states it is “committed to ensuring the protection of marine habitats and minimizing any impacts to the fishing industry," and has entered into a, quote, “unprecedented agreement to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.”