Vineyard Wind loses backing of a fishing board, decision may have serious consequences for proposed offshore wind farm
NARRAGANSETT – Vineyard Wind is facing an uphill battle to secure a key approval from Rhode Island coastal regulators for its 800-megawatt offshore wind farm after a state fishing board refused to back the $2-billion project.
The Fishermen’s Advisory Board, which advises the Coastal Resources Management Council on fishing issues related to offshore wind, voted unanimously Monday to deny its support out of fear that the layout of the project’s 84 towering wind turbines in Rhode Island Sound would close off fishing grounds that are considered some of the most productive for the state’s commercial fleet.
The proposal is now set to go before the coastal council on Nov. 27, with what’s known as a “consistency certification” on the line. Vineyard Wind has asked for a stay in proceedings, but CRMC executive director Grover Fugate made it clear at the meeting on Monday that the current layout doesn’t fit within the Rhode Island policy that guides offshore development.
“Because of the [Ocean Special Area Management Plan], we’re there to protect the [fishing] industry,” he said. “We’re there to ensure that it continues into the future.”
Even though the Vineyard Wind project would supply power to Massachusetts and be located in federal waters far from the Rhode Island coast, the state has jurisdiction through the consistency process. Under federal law, if a project would impact Rhode Island coastal resources or activities, such as fishing, it must be carried out in a way that is consistent with state policies.
If the Rhode Island council denies certification, Vineyard Wind would be able to appeal the decision to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that would take time – and Vineyard Wind is under an extremely tight schedule to start construction by the end of next year to qualify for the federal tax credits that are the key to the project’s financial viability.
Vineyard Wind is the first large-scale offshore wind project in the nation to enter the permitting process. The proposal comes after Deepwater Wind, now Orsted U.S. Offshore Wind, completed a test project in 2016 off Block Island that is the first and so far only offshore wind farm in the United States.
The impasse with local fishermen comes at the same time that Vineyard Wind is competing with other developers to win a second contract of up to 350 megawatts to supply power to Rhode Island.
The disagreement could have broader implications for the offshore wind industry and its relations with fishing communities all along the Northeast coast that are already fearful of being shunted aside in the interests of new energy development.
“This is precedent-setting,” Fred Mattera, executive director of the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center, said at the meeting with Vineyard Wind. “You’re the first one that’s coming to the table. Everybody’s looking.”
Vineyard Wind, staff with the coastal council and fishermen have been in negotiations for more than a year without finding common ground. The main sticking point has been the way the New Bedford company has laid out its turbines.
The configuration is critical because of a gentleman’s agreement worked out decades ago between fishermen who trawl for squid and other fish using nets towed behind their boats and those who fix gear to the ocean floor like lobster traps or gill nets. Fixed gear is laid out in rows from east to west and spaced about one nautical mile (1.15 miles) apart, creating wide and predictable lanes for mobile gear boats to fish between.
The wind farm, however, was laid out in rows that run from northwest to southeast and spacing varies from one nautical mile to three-quarters of a nautical mile. Under that design, trawlers would not only snag their nets on traps and other fixed gear but would also run the risk of colliding with a turbine, according to fishermen.
In its latest offer, Vineyard Wind agreed to a partial reconfiguration that would align about 20 to 25 percent of the approximately 118-square-mile area of development from east to west. The remaining 75 to 80 percent would remain in rows that run northeast to southwest.
In a filing submitted to Rhode Island regulators, the company presented the new layout and its decision to reduce the number of turbines by using larger models as an “extraordinary commitment.” CEO Lars Pedersen told fishermen at Monday’s meeting that the company had done all it could to accommodate the needs of the fishing community.
“Our goal is to allow fishing and offshore wind to coexist,” he said. “That it’s not two industries that are competing.”
But members of the fishing board weren’t convinced.
“That is a no-fish area now with that layout,” said lobsterman Brian Thiebault.
“We’re talking lives at stake here,” said Al Eagles, who also fishes for lobster. “We’re not going to give up our safety for someone to make a profit on wind farms.”
Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison for North Kingstown-based Seafreeze, which operates trawlers and fish processing facilities, said that her company’s boats and some of its clients’ boats will not be able to navigate through the wind farm as Vineyard Wind has configured it. Pile-driving to secure the turbines to the ocean floor could also harm squid that make up Rhode Island’s largest fishery.
“Our entire fishery is at stake in and outside this area,” she said. “We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in this state that could be impacted.”
The stakes are high for the fishing community because Vineyard Wind’s configuration may determine how other developers configure their projects. It only makes sense for developers to lay out their project in a uniform manner. The U.S. Coast Guard has said as much.
Vineyard Wind is one of two companies that have won leases in a large swathe of federal waters in Rhode Island Sound that runs southeast from a point roughly between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. Following a line from around Cox Ledge are two leases held by Orsted U.S. Offshore Wind, then the Vineyard Wind lease, and finally two leases that are set to be auctioned off on Dec. 13.
Vineyard Wind says it’s not possible to completely reconfigure the wind farm while still offering the levelized price of 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour that it proposed to Massachusetts when that state selected the company last spring in a renewable energy procurement.
The critical factor for Vineyard Wind is time. The low price offered by the company depends on tying up federal tax credits that are set to expire.
Under the project schedule, that means starting construction within the next year. The agreements to sell energy to utilities in Massachusetts require the project to start delivering some power by Jan. 15, 2022.
The company says that the foundation of each turbine is designed for the ocean-bottom conditions of its specific location. New locations would require additional geological surveys that could take a year to complete and designing new foundations could stretch on for another year.
To mitigate the impact on Rhode Island fishermen, the company is working on a plan to pay them for lost revenues. The company says it will also orient all future development in its lease area – including the proposals submitted this fall in response to the Rhode Island procurement – from east to west and work with other developers to maintain consistent configurations.
A total reconfiguration of the wind farm would delay the permitting process being led by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM.
“Any delay in BOEM’s approval process will have a domino effect and will most likely be fatal to the project,” the company said in a letter to the Rhode Island coastal council.
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