BOSTON – The future of the wind industry off Massachusetts may take shape inside a crookedly-drawn area of ocean about 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The 2,900 square mile polygon has strong winds and is close to densely populated coastal areas with high power demands. It also contains rich scallop grounds and important flounder spawning areas.
The federal government is now asking offshore wind developers if they’re interested in building wind farms in this designated zone, and some fishermen are working to ensure they aren’t pushed out of it.
It’s impossible to fish among fields of towering turbines, said fisherman Ed Barrett of Marshfield.
Barrett also questioned the fairness of letting a new industry into the area, where major sections have long been closed to protect the habitat from certain types of fishing.
“You’ve closed me out of that area for 25 years, and now you’re going to turn it into an industrial power plant?” he said.
Jim Kendall, a former scalloper and head of New Bedford Seafood Consulting, said the government just dropped the proposal on fishermen from nowhere.
“They threw this at us, with no inside participation from the industry,” he said.
But state and federal officials said planning is in its early stages, and fishermen will have numerous chances to speak out before any turbines go up.
Rick Sullivan, Massachusetts’ secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said he’s certain the region can tap into a rich offshore wind resource without harming fishermen.
“I believe that offshore wind and the fishing industry can survive very well together, if we are working closely, communicating closely, and siting our offshore wind smartly,” he said.
Massachusetts is already home to the nation’s first federally-approved offshore wind farm, Cape Wind, which developers aim to begin operating in Nantucket Sound by 2013. But the permitting process took 10 years and federal officials say better efficiency is crucial to catch up to competitors such as Europe and China.
Last year, the Interior Department started the “Smart from the Start” program, which aims to spur wind energy development off the Atlantic coast.
In December, the department’s ocean energy bureau issued a “Request For Interest” in the designated area off Massachusetts, which was selected by a task force of governmental and tribal representatives who first considered various environmental, economic and aesthetic concerns.
Similar requests for interest have already been made for areas off Maryland and Delaware, and requests are planned for areas off Rhode Island, New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina, said Maureen Bornholdt of the ocean energy bureau.
The public comment period for the Massachusetts request for interest ends April 18. The task force will then pare down the original area to places where offshore wind could be installed with the fewest problems, Bornholdt said.
By early next year, the more refined area should be ready to present to the public and offshore wind industry for possible development, she said.
Even if the new process improves government review, the high price of offshore wind remains a major obstacle for the industry. The cost of developing sprawling wind farms at sea has led to power prices double, or more, the cost of other renewable power sources, such as land wind. The price of its electricity has been a challenge for Cape Wind, which is still shopping half its planned power output.
Barrett said he thinks fishermen are being asked to make way for an industry that isn’t economically viable.
“It’s like believing in the tooth fairy, that’s how I think about wind energy, honestly,” he said.
But Bornholdt said she’s confident that there will be significant interest in offshore wind off Massachusetts. She points to Maryland, where eight companies responded to the request for interest – more than she expected.
Sullivan said driving down price has become a major priority for the offshore industry and federal government. Costs will drop sharply, he predicted, and more wind farms will be built.
“I certainly do not think it’s a fantasy. I think it is an absolute reality,” he said.
On Monday, state officials will host a second meeting of the Fisheries Working Group on Offshore Renewable Energy in New Bedford to get more opinions from the fishing industry.
Kendall said numerous questions remain, such as the long-term effects on the fishing grounds, how the at-sea infrastructure such as power cables could limit fishing and the effects of sticking huge turbines in the ocean floor.
Kendall added they have to be willing to listen.
“We as fishermen just can’t keep saying, ‘No, no, no, not in our backyard,’ just because we don’t want them there,” he said. “If (offshore wind development) is practical then, all right, fine. It may work. If it’s not practical, why should the fishermen have to take another hit?”