The chance to build wind turbines south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket has sparked a wave of interest from almost a dozen developers, including a community-organized cooperative on the Vineyard.
“We believe we are well positioned to hold and get these leases,” said Richard Andre, executive director of Vineyard Power, an electricity cooperative based in West Tisbury.
Vineyard Power has joined forces with New Jersey-based OffshoreMW to develop a project that could provide electricity for the entire island. OffshoreMW is the sister company of German-based WindMW, which already has plans to build an 80-turbine wind farm in the North Sea.
The partnership between a private developer and a cooperative is unique among applicants seeking to lease the areas in federal waters off Massachusetts opened earlier this year for offshore wind energy projects by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The project would be built in phases south of Martha’s Vineyard and include turbines for both the cooperative’s purposes and the company’s commercial venture, Andre said.
The first phase might include about 10 turbines generating about 40 megawatts to meet the Vineyard’s energy needs, he said.
If the use of electric cars increases on the island and various energy storage techniques are implemented, Vineyard Power’s demand for energy from the offshore turbines could increase to 100 megawatts by 2025, Andre said.
Once complete, the entire project would include up to 1,000 megawatts of power, OffshoreMW vice president Erich Stephens said.
“One thousand megawatts is kind of the sweet spot,” Stephens said.
With a state goal for the area of 4,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy, three to six developers might be expected to operate in the leasing zone, he said.
Vineyard Power was formed to address the island’s energy needs.
The cooperative has 1,100 members with a goal of 8,000 members by the time the wind farm is operating, Andre said.
The organization completed a community survey and collected other data that resulted in the selection of three leasing blocks about 14 miles south of the island, Andre said. Vineyard Power and OffshoreMW are also vying to lease offshore areas between Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Most cooperative members accepted the location south of the Vineyard based on visual considerations, Andre said. Other factors in the location included cost and the potential impact on wildlife and commercial fishing, he said.
While New Bedford is expected to be the base for the project’s construction, an operations and maintenance facility might be located in Vineyard Haven, bringing more than a dozen jobs to the island, he said.
The cooperative and the company each bring benefits to the partnership, Andre and Stephens said.
For the company, having direct contact with the project’s nearest community and a known source of customers is helpful, Stephens said.
OffshoreMW gives Vineyard Power the commercial bona fides it needs to get a project off the ground, Andre said. The company has a well-known financial partner in The Blackstone Group, an international investment firm with more than $100 billion in assets under its management.
About half of the 255 square miles covered by OffshoreMW’s leasing application would be buffer between other potential projects.
But Vineyard Power and OffshoreMW will have some competition, including Energy Management Inc. (EMI), the parent company of Cape Wind Associates LLC, which has the first signed commercial lease for an offshore wind farm in the country.
Cape Wind could begin construction by the end of the year on 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound, but EMI is already looking to the area south of the islands for future projects.
“It’s important that people understand that this is only the very beginning stage of what’s going to be a lengthy process evaluating this body of water and its ability for offshore wind development,” company spokesman Mark Rodgers said.
EMI has set its sights on two areas covering more than 250 square miles in the leasing zone. One of the areas starts almost 24 miles south of Nantucket and the other is in the same area as OffshoreMW’s proposed leasing area.
By contrast Cape Wind will be located five miles from shore at its nearest point.
More information must be collected on the new area, which is a more challenging location than shallow and relatively protected Nantucket Sound, where Cape Wind will be located, Rodgers said.
“We always felt that Nantucket Sound was the ideal place to build the first offshore wind farm but America needs more than one offshore wind farm,” Rodgers said.
The U.S. Department of Energy has a goal of 100 Cape Wind-sized projects off the country’s coast, he said.
But longtime Cape Wind opponents see many of the same problems experienced during that project’s contentious 10-year permitting history cropping up in the leasing process for the area south of the Islands.
Although some members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) are also members of the cooperative, the tribe continues to officially push for more consultation on the leasing proposals and believes that projects should, at a minimum, be located 21 miles or more out to sea.
“I’ll give the state credit for responding to what has been an outcry over the initial plan,” said former state Rep. Eric Turkington, who now represents a group of Vineyard residents with concerns about offshore wind energy projects. “The problem is they still haven’t done the science.”
Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration recently requested that the federal government cut the 3,000-square-mile lease area by more than half.
State officials have held more than 30 meetings on the lease area and have convened offshore wind energy working groups on fisheries and habitat, state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan said. Officials have identified other issues that require further evaluation, he said.
“In that vein, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is commissioning a study on the activity of marine mammals, birds and sea turtles in the planning area,” Sullivan said.
“The commonwealth will continue to make sure affected stakeholders are involved in the federal process going forward.”
The wildlife study is expected to cost as much as $900,000.
The next big question for developers is how the federal government will decide who gets a lease.
The Vineyard Power OffshoreMW partnership hopes community benefits are accounted for and not just economic factors, Andre of Vineyard Power said.
“It’s a better way to represent the local communities’ impact and involvement, not just who has the biggest pocketbook,” he said.
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