Off the coast of Cape Cod, renewable energy companies rush to harness the wind | Crain's Boston

Off the coast of Cape Cod, renewable energy companies rush to harness the wind

Wind turbines off the coast of Rhode Island, at the country's first offshore wind farm. | U.S. Dept. of Energy photo via Flickr

Massachusetts is on the cusp of an explosion in offshore wind energy.

The ocean shelf off Cape Cod holds an untapped 1,600 megawatts of wind energy—enough to power 800,000 homes—that’s currently up for grabs.

Some of the world's biggest developers of offshore wind energy are competing to win the state’s first open bid under a new state law that calls for Massachusetts to get 1,600 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind power by 2027. Proposals are due Dec. 20, and the state is expected to pick winners by April of next year.

It will still be years before Massachusetts ratepayers get electricity from offshore wind, but the state’s recent request for proposals could be the first ripple in a coming wave of renewable energy development off the coast of Massachusetts that could transform the New England power grid.

Offshore wind is mainstream and it is coming to the U.S. in a big way,” Jeffrey Grybowski, CEO of wind developer Deepwater Wind, said in a statement. Deepwater Wind recently opened the country's first offshore wind farm, off the coast of Rhode Island's Block Island, and has floated a proposal to partner with Tesla to build the world's largest battery storage system for offshore wind energy in Massachusetts.

Now that there’s just a little momentum building behind this I think that you will start to see sort of a groundswell of activity,” said Steve Pike, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the state’s research and investment arm for renewable energy.

Last year Gov. Charlie Baker signed The Energy Diversity Act, calling for the state's utilities to procure 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2027. Industry leaders say that galvanized investment in offshore wind.

In December the Norwegian multinational Statoil agreed to pay nearly $42.5 million to lease 79,350 acres off the coast of New Jersey—a figure shockingly high to some industry observers.

That was a huge surprise to everybody,” Pike said. That lease, which could eventually accommodate up to a gigawatt of offshore wind power, may start generating electricity before the Massachusetts sites currently up for bid, he said—and it’s a sign of growing interest in the market.

The three companies currently bidding to develop nearly 400,000 acres off Martha’s Vineyard include several of the industry’s biggest players. Deepwater Wind developed the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. Bay State Wind LLC is run by the Danish giant DONG Energy, which built the world’s first offshore wind farm in Denmark more than 25 years ago, as well as the American energy company Eversource. Vineyard Wind is a joint venture set up by the Danish investment fund Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and the U.S. wind energy developer Avangrid.

The fundamentals are just so right for offshore wind in Massachusetts,” said Erich Stephens, CEO of Vineyard Wind.

Stephens said offshore wind makes sense in Massachusetts because most of the state's electricity demand comes from its densely populated coastal region, close to where offshore wind farms will be. Renewable energy advocates also note that wind energy can help the state cut down on imported fossil fuels.

You either can build more infrastructure to bring more energy into New England through gas pipelines,” Stephens said, “[or] with offshore wind you’re building that ability to get your energy from right here in New England.”

Advocates also point to the potential for green jobs in the state—something Massachusetts is actively trying to encourage with renewed investment in its Marine Commerce Terminal in the historic fishing port of New Bedford.

The 26-acre terminal was originally intended to facilitate shipping and installation work for the wind turbines on the ill-fated Cape Wind project, which sought to build 130 turbines off the coast of Nantucket. That project died in 2015 after years of public opposition, leading critics to call the marine terminal a waste of taxpayer money.

All three companies bidding to develop Massachusetts’ first offshore wind farm have also leased space in the New Bedford marine terminal, now positioned to be the operations and maintenance hub for the state’s nascent offshore wind industry.

Steve Pike of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center said most of the major components of wind turbines, including their blades, are too expensive to manufacture in New England now, and will likely be shipped from Europe at first. The U.K., which boasts the world's biggest offshore wind sector, is promoting domestic manufacturing of offshore wind turbines in several ports whose traditional industries—typically fishing and shipbuilding—have long been on the decline. That description fits New Bedford, whose historic whaling industry inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

That’s certainly something that we would like to have in Massachusetts, but we’re also realistic that at this point in time that may not make sense,” said Pike. “It’s going to take some sort of critical mass of projects before those supply chain companies really establish those facilities in the U.S.”

Even without much domestic manufacturing, the terminal is busier than it has been since its inception in 2015, said Vineyard Wind’s Eric Stephens.

Our office has a view out on the port and we see the survey vessels going out to study the sea floor,” he says. “It seems like every day there’s someone passing through.”

August 22, 2017 - 6:22pm