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An Uncertain Future For Vineyard Wind

Offshore wind turbines near Block Island, Rhode Island.
Offshore wind turbines near Block Island, Rhode Island.

The Vineyard Wind project is a proposed 800 megawatt offshore wind farm just south of Martha's Vineyard. The future of Vineyard Wind, however, is in limbo since the federal government put its review of the project on hold. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu talks with WGBH's Cape Cod bureau reporter Sarah Mizes-Tan about where the project currently stands and what it could mean for the state of Massachusetts. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: Let's start with the basics. You've really taken a deep dive on this. Explain the proposal ? how many turbines are we talking about?

Sarah Mizes-Tan: So Vineyard Wind is proposing to build an 84-turbine wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts, just a couple miles south of Martha's Vineyard. Eighty-four turbines is a sizable amount of turbines, and they say when this is fully running this should generate enough power for 400,000 homes. That would be more than what Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant created when it was fully operational.

Mathieu: Is that right? I was curious how that compared. You did a lot of reporting on the shut down of the plant as well. So it actually more than makes up for that.

Mizes-Tan: Yeah, it will more than make up for the hole that Pilgrim Nuclear has left, if it comes online.

Mathieu: I mentioned Cape Wind. I don't mean to go too far back into history, but how does this relate to other proposals we've seen here?

Mizes-Tan: Yeah, there's definitely a tendency, I think, for a lot of people who have just started to hear about the offshore wind proposal to equate it to Cape Wind. But the Vineyard Winds project has been held as the state's response to the Cape Wind debacle, because since then the federal government learned from the hurdles the Cape Wind project encountered, specifically when it came to choosing a plot of ocean in the water for the farm. Sound familiar?

But the main difference is the plot of ocean that the Vineyard Wind project is on. This plot was specifically placed about six miles south of the Vineyard. It was pre-selected for wind generation by the federal government. Supposedly, they took into account a lot of issues people had when the Cape Wind project came up, such as things like visibility from land and concern from fishing vessels. The Vineyard Wind project was supposed to be fast-tracked because many of the approvals the Cape Wind project had to go through were done before Vineyard Wind actually even signed on. And yet, as we're seeing from the federal government's delay earlier this month, some old problems are rearing their heads again. Vineyard Wind had an environmental proposal they had to get from the government, and the government has put the brakes on it, in part because they say there are concerns from fishermen, who use this area, too. Things like shipping vessel navigation and nets. And so you may be thinking at this point, this all sounds pretty familiar.

Mathieu: It does.

Mizes-Tan: Basically, the federal government's response, they've told me, is that they weren't expecting so many wind farms to be coming up so quickly. Massachusetts has had a huge response not just Vineyard Wind, but there are a lot of other projects in the pipeline. So the federal government, essentially, heard a lot of feedback from fishermen who maybe are just officially waking up to this now and seeing how real this is. And they say they're just dialing things back for everything.

Mathieu: So it's more about a backlog than some change in policy or something? I ask you that because we hear from President Trump [that] if you live near a windmill your home value is going to go down. He makes fun of the way they sound [and] he says they kill birds. But, as you explained, this part of the ocean was zoned for this. So I didn't think we'd even be having this conversation. What happened last year? Why was that historic, and what does that mean in the interim?

Mizes-Tan: Well, last year was historic just because the state gave its first official go ahead. We had this plot of land that had supposedly been pre-screened, it gave the official go ahead and Vineyard Wind was going to be the first sanctioned offshore wind farm in the country. And so in a lot of ways it was going to be leading the charge with the offshore wind industry here. Massachusetts has had a very aggressive campaign to move offshore wind along, and this was its first step. So it's a big deal.

Mathieu: What would this mean for the region [and] for the south coast of Massachusetts? Would this help to put the lights on in Boston, if this got approved?

Mizes-Tan: Of course. Yeah, I know that everyone in Boston probably wants to know why do we care about something that's happening off of Martha's Vineyard? Of course, everybody should hopefully care about this project because it could mean the state would be able to generate more renewable energy. New England, and specifically Massachusetts, does not generate a whole lot of clean, zero carbon energy at the moment. Pilgrim Nuclear, say what you may about nuclear power, was a clean source, zero carbon energy. That shuttered earlier this year. Seabrook in New Hampshire will be aging out in the next 50 years. A lot of renewable energy is currently brought in from hydropower dams in Canada, which is expensive.

Mathieu: So we want to replace that?

Mizes-Tan: Yeah. Basically, there's a strong impetus for the state to be able to generate its own renewable energy in state. Gov. Charlie Baker has recognized this, and offshore wind could be that ticket.

Mathieu: So can I even ask you about timeline then? What are we talking about a year from now, or two years from now? Or is that the story: no one knows?

Mizes-Tan: It is a little bit in limbo right now. I guess Vineyard Wind has said if the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management ? the federal government ? can turn around and give them that environmental approval in the next six months, they could possibly be on track to start breaking ground by next year. But there's no guarantee. The federal government has not given any timeline for when they're going to be releasing their statement. So it is definitely in a bit of a holding pattern right now, [and] that's rattled a lot of people who follow the industry. Massachusetts was really set up to be that landing point for a lot of European companies that were coming over here to start offshore wind. So of course that's industry people like turbine builders. And they may go elsewhere. This delay has kind of put other projects like New York and New Jersey potentially in the running to take the lead.

Mathieu: To become the first.

Mizes-Tan: And that means a big thing for where these companies go [and] job generation. We have a port in New Bedford supposedly ready for this, but maybe that doesn't end up getting used if a project off of New Jersey comes online first.

Copyright 2019 GBH