Offshore Wind Promises New England Energy Changes
March 24, 2021
The winds and airs currents swirling around the oceans of this blue marble have the potential to power our cities and towns. And locally in coastal New England, the race to harness the power of coastal wind has been accelerating.
Last year then-Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order that called for an ambitious yet somewhat vague “100 percent renewable energy future for Rhode Island by 2030” — a good portion of which would be from offshore wind.
“There is no offshore wind industry in America except right here in Rhode Island,” Raimondo said at the time. She was referring to the groundbreaking five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, a 30-megawatt project that was the first commercial offshore wind facility in the United States.
Today, there is a slightly different picture forming, and other New England states such as Massachusetts and Maine, are looking into becoming a part of a regional offshore wind network.
During a March 18 online presentation, Environment America discussed a recently released report detailing the overall potential that offshore wind has, specifically in New England. The discussion also included presentations from experts in the field of offshore wind.
“We found that the U.S. has a technical potential to produce more than 7,200 terawatt-hours of electricity in offshore wind,” said Hannah Read of Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental advocacy organizations. “What we did was we compared that to both our electricity used in 2019 and the potential electricity used in 2050, assuming that we transition society to run mostly on electric rather than fossil fuels, and what we found is that offshore wind could power our 2019 electricity almost two times over, and in 2050 could power 90 percent of our electricity needs.”
On a more granular level, Read said Massachusetts has the highest potential for offshore wind generation capacity, and Maine has the highest ratio of potential generation capacity relative to the amount of electricity that it uses.
Massachusetts is entering the final stages of the federal permitting process for the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project, which is slated to start construction next year and go online in 2023.
“We have some real frontrunners here in New England and we have a huge opportunity to take advantage of this resource,” Read said. “When you look at the New England as a region, it could generate more than five times its projected 2050 electricity demand.”
While Rhode Island and Massachusetts are looking to more traditional fixed-bottom turbines, in coastal Maine, where coastal waters are deeper, researchers at the University of Maine are testing prototypes for floating wind turbines.
“The state of Maine has deep waters off its coasts. If you go three nautical miles off the coast … you’re in about 300 feet of water,” said Habib Dagher, founding executive director of the Advanced Structures & Composites Center at UMaine. “Therefore, you can’t really use fixed-bottom turbines.”
To mitigate this, Dagher and his team have been building and testing floating turbines for the past 13 years, using technology from an unlikely source.
“There are three different categories of floating turbines and ironically enough we have the oil and gas industry to thank for developing floating structures,” Dagher said. “We borrowed these designs … and adapted them to floating turbines.”
Many of these floating turbines rely on mooring lines and drag anchors to keep them from floating away, and they come in various styles.
Dagher noted that while other states are able to pile-drive turbines, they should consider floating turbines as another way to fit more wind power into select offshore areas that could become crammed full.
“We’re going to run out of space to put fixed-bottom turbines. We have to start looking at floating … on the Massachusetts coast and beyond, in the rest of the Northeast,” he said.
Shilo Felton, a field manager for the Audubon Society’s Clean Energy Initiative, addressed another issue facing offshore wind: bird migration patterns. Focusing on the northern gannet, a large seabird, she explained that while climate change itself is negatively affecting bird populations, it is important to take care that offshore wind doesn’t make the situation worse.
She noted that northern gannets experience both direct and indirect risks from offshore wind. “Direct risks are things like collision, indirect risks are things like habitat loss,” Felton said.
But Felton also acknowledged that since we don’t really have lots of large-scale wind projects in the United States currently, it’s hard to really say how much those risks will impact bird populations.
“We don’t have any utility-scale projects yet, so we don’t really know how the build out in the United States is going to impact species,” she said. “So that requires us to take this adaptive management approach where we monitor impacts as we build out so that we can understand what those impacts are.”
Overall, the potential that offshore wind holds as a viable mitigation tactic in the fight to curb and eventually eradicate greenhouse-gas emissions is great. But, as speakers noted, implementation has to be done thoughtfully and thoroughly.
Referring specifically to Maine, Dagher said, “The state is moving on to do a smaller project of 10 to 12 turbines, and that would help us crawl before we walk, walk before we run. Start with one, then put in 10 to 12 and learn the ecological impacts, learn how to work with fisheries, learn how to better site these things before we go out and do bigger projects in the future.”