VINEYARD HAVEN – The announcement last week that 742,000 acres of ocean south of Martha’s Vineyard will be opened to offshore wind energy left unanswered questions about what the projects would look like from shore, the effects on the environment and how the turbines will be connected to the electric grid.
On Monday, state and federal officials tried to fill in the blanks for about 40 attendees at a public meeting inside the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Spring Street, but admitted many answers would come only once companies bid on the area and submit specific proposals.
The large murals in the small theater above Tisbury Town Hall could have been one of the PowerPoint presentations about the competing interests facing offshore wind: a winter fishing scene; whales; a bikini-clad woman with sailboats in the background; and a Native American. Even after a five-year process that saw the wind-energy area south of the Vineyard whittled to half the original proposed size based on some of these interests, the devilish details are still scant.
Despite the reduction in size, the area could still provide 4,000-5,000 megawatts of clean energy for the state, said Bill White, director of offshore wind-sector development for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
“Its size basically doubles the federal government’s offshore wind area,” he said, adding that this will be important as other sources of electricity are retired.
Although there are no turbines in commercial operation in U.S. waters, there have been several leases awarded for different projects, including Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound.
Like an auction for 164,000 acres of ocean southwest of the Vineyard that was awarded last year to Deepwater Wind New England LLC for $3.8 million, the auction for the larger area south of the island will take place online, said Jessica Stromberg, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Massachusetts project coordinator.
For several audience members, there were two overriding concerns about the new area being opened for development: The potential layout of transmission cables and how the projects would benefit the island community.
“We need more of a benefit,” said Tristan Israel, a Tisbury selectman and Dukes County commissioner. “We’re the primary community that’s going to face an impact from these turbines.”
Community benefit is built into the process for auctioning off the area, which federal officials have divided diagonally into four sections.
In addition to a cash bid, developers will also submit a nonmonetary package and could receive credit for specific community benefits or for the existence of a long-term contract to sell power from the project, Stromberg said.
Israel and others, including state Rep. Timothy Madden, D-Nantucket, argued that the community benefit should be valued more.
“I’d like to see some percentage of those thousands of jobs come to the kids who graduate from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School,” Chilmark Selectman Warren Doty said.
Doty said he fears that there could be hundreds of wind turbines built south of the Vineyard, and every vessel and worker would come from somewhere else.
Instead some of the boats that work on the turbines could be island-based or companies could locate an office locally, Doty said.
Maureen Bornholdt, renewable energy program manager at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, asked the meeting’s attendees to help come up with simple, objective ways to value the community benefit they are seeking.
Previous comments from the public helped her convince Interior Department leadership to include a community benefit agreement in the proposed lease sale, Bornholdt said.
Beth Casoni, associate executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, questioned whether five-year studies proposed for developers to do site-characterization work is enough.
“That’s something we’ve been grappling with since we started,” Bornholdt said. “How much data do we need?”
If there are specific areas where more data is necessary that can be required, she said.
Tyler Studds, project manager for wind at the Clean Energy Center, said the state has been collecting information on marine mammals in the area of the proposed lease sale by working with experts that include the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
Surveys have included 125 flight hours, 6,560 nautical miles, the collection of 171,126 images, of which 127,205 have been analyzed for whales, dolphins and other species, he said.
In addition, nine devices are located underwater in the area that can be used to gather acoustic information, such as individual whale calls, he said.
There has also been some high level analysis of what could be done with transmission lines, Studds said.
That work has shown that there are eight substations located in several states, including on the Cape Cod Canal and in Barnstable, where a 345-kilovolt line could be run from a wind farm in the Massachusetts area to land, but specific plans are still needed to understand what those connections would look like, he said.
Some of those decisions will be guided by the state’s Ocean Management Plan, which was developed in 2009 to map areas where development can and cannot happen, said state Coastal Zone Management Director Bruce Carlisle.
That plan is currently undergoing a required five-year update, he said.