After Years Of Slow Action On Climate Change, What Sets Offshore Wind Apart For N.H.?

Jan 21, 2020

Most New England states have been investing in alternative energy sources for years. But New Hampshire has been slower to act in response to climate change.

Now, the Granite State is looking to be a leader in a major new source of renewable energy: offshore wind.

Turnout exceeded all expectations at the first meeting, last month, of a federal task force on wind development in the Gulf of Maine. One state legislator was heard saying the line to get in rivaled the line for the women's bathroom at Fenway Park. 

Governor Chris Sununu welcomed hundreds of people who filled up a huge meeting hall and overflow rooms at UNH.

"Good morning,” he said, to a mild response, then: “Come on! Look what we're kicking off, this is exciting!" 

When it comes to energy reform, Sununu has always focused on minimizing costs to consumers. At the task force meeting, he had a message: the way to get there is with huge amounts of power from high-tech wind turbines floating in the ocean. 

Governor Chris Sununu speaks at the first meeting of a federal task force on offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

"We're not talking about benchtop models, we're not talking about theory, we're not writing papers – we want to build something here,” he said. “Right? We want those electrons to be zipped over back into New England in one way or the other, and we want people to benefit from it." 

This big meeting came just under a year after Sununu asked the Trump administration to open up the possibility of offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine.

They formed this task force with stakeholders in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, to see how wind would work with fisheries, transmission systems, aesthetics and more.

New Hampshire business commissioner Taylor Caswell, who’s on the task force, says offshore wind would be a game-changer – for business in the state and for displacing the greenhouse gas-emitting fuels that cause climate change. "Part of the complexity of the policy issue has been the sheer size of what we need to be able to accomplish to displace fossil fuels...if, in fact, that's the direction we're going, which I do think it is,” Caswell says.

“And here we have an opportunity to start talking about renewable energy in gigawatts,” he says, “as opposed to five megawatts here and four megawatts there." 

For scale – just a dozen or so of these wind turbines can produce as much electricity as a nuclear power plant.

Short-term shortfalls

But these wind farms are probably 10 years off from reality. Climate activists like Griffin Sinclair-Wingate of 350 New Hampshire say there are lots of other steps the Sununu administration could take now, like supporting solar, hydropower or energy efficiency. 

Instead, Sinclair-Wingate says, Sununu “has vetoed countless numbers of bills that would have a tremendous impact in developing renewable energy in the state."

The governor has vetoed bills that advocates say would expand other forms of renewable energy in New Hampshire, such as this solar array on top of a factory in Nashua.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Those include expansions of net energy metering that would let towns and businesses save more on their energy costs by building more solar and hydropower.

This legislative session, Sununu has proposed an alternate plan to ones he’s blocked in the past – but advocates say it wouldn’t have enough of an impact.   

Sununu often cites economics in opposing state incentives for smaller-scale technologies like solar. But advocates argue that these sectors have major untapped potential to lower costs for consumers and create jobs.

Still, a growing wind industry does provide some unique opportunities – like on New Hampshire's Seacoast, which many say could be perfectly positioned as a hub for wind construction offshore. 

A source of hope

Key to that vision is the Port of New Hampshire on the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth. It's got deep water, a ready workforce and easy access to highways – the wind industry wouldn't have to build a whole new facility here, advocates say, at least not to meet some of its many needs.

State port authority director Geno Marconi says Portsmouth has had a taste of what wind business could be like. Last summer, huge components for land-based turbines were shipped in to this port before they were trucked out to Antrim. 

Advocates say the Port of New Hampshire in Portsmouth could see lots of new business from an offshore wind industry in the region.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

"All that open area where we walked through, we had a lot of the tower sections and everything staged out there,” he says, pointing to large, flat sections of the dock between piles of road salt.

These onshore turbines were far smaller than the ones officials hope to install offshore – and still, Marconi says, the project took a year to plan.

Michael Behrmann, the business development director for Clean Energy New Hampshire and one of the state's top wind evangelists, has spent a lot of time at the port imagining the future. He even took state and industry leaders to see wind farms in Denmark in 2018. 

"We're looking at, by 2040, a trillion-dollar global industry,” Behrmann says, citing a recent report from the International Energy Agency. “If we could even grab a small part of that for New Hampshire, it would be transformative for our economy." 

Behrmann says he's dedicated his career to tackling climate change, and that wind is the best option New England has ever had to make a difference.

"For me, and for a lot of people, the reality of being able to tap into such a large energy resource gives us hope that we can achieve the changes in our energy generation resources that we really need and need to do in a very quick timeframe,” he says.  

Until that happens, he hopes the state's enthusiasm for wind will spread to the rest of its climate change response, too.