Whatever the future for large scale off-shore wind farms in New England, New Bedford and its first in the nation fishing industry will feel the effects. Renewable energy from sources which include off-shore wind, are an undeniable part of our future. It’s a fair question though whether commercial fishing as it now exists in southern New England, will survive the installation of the largest and most extensive array of ocean based wind turbines in the world. The offshore wind lease areas in federal waters overlay some important fishing grounds and navigation transit areas for the commercial fishing fleet which sails from our coast.
The project furthest along in the leasing process is being pursued by Vineyard Wind, which hopes to have all its approvals by the summer of 2019 and begin construction later in the year. Critical decisions are about to made at the state and federal levels regarding the design, spacing and layout of the initial turbines which are planned for the waters near Martha’s Vineyard. This process involves the filing of reports which are public and provide opportunities for comment and reactions. The Draft Environmental Impact Report before the lead federal agency involved, BOEM, is open for public comment through Jan. 21, 2019 and there are parallel state agency filings as well. The public has a responsibility to participate in shaping the decisions that are going to be made and monitor the filings as they are announced.
It’s a lot to expect that the fishing industry alone can handle the needed public oversight. Off the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coast alone there are seven different lease areas under review totaling about 1 million acres; their ultimate design configuration will be the first test of how seriously marine resource, safety and navigation issues involving the wind towers will be handled by the government agencies involved. The first maps and plans to be approved are especially important because how those turbines are set up and reviewed by the government will likely set a precedent for how the process is run for the additional lease areas sought by other developers. In other words, there’s a lot at stake not only for the developers, but importantly, the public interest in preserving ocean habitat and the existing ocean-going economy of New England.
In early December the first extensive media attention occurred as to what is involved in building a safe and navigable ocean wind-farm off our coast. While there are examples of off shore wind farms in Europe, the New England projects are designed for bigger areas of ocean, taller towers, longer blades with higher radar impacts, and a U.S. fishing fleet which typically deploys longer vessels on the water. In fact, Vineyard Wind wrote in a November filing that their project would use the “largest turbine commercially available in the world today.” Surprisingly, the amount of technical review of how these systems would all work together in our waters is sparse to non-existent.
Media coverage, including articles in this paper, The Standard-Times and SouthCoast Today on Dec. 10, 2018, highlighted the question of how to provide safe ‘transit corridors’ for the vessels and safety responders who travel through and around the planned wind farms in order to access fishing grounds on the other side. The developers contend that transit corridors with a two-mile width will work fine, while the fishing industry groups have made clear that safety requirements call for nothing less than four-mile corridor widths through the wind-farm areas.
Two-mile wide transit corridors are too narrow in my view in light of the fact that both the British and U.S. governments have already warned that being that close to turbine towers is likely to degrade the accuracy of radar signals. In 2008 the British Coast Guard issued an alert that even at one and a half miles proximity to the smaller British wind turbines, radar shadows and echoes occur with further “deterioration” of the signal as a vessel gets even closer. This means that even a three-mile wide corridor still leaves vessels too close for accurate and reliable radar navigation readings. In July 2014, NOAA provided official comment on the issue of how wind turbines would affect the Coast Guard’s high frequency radar systems situated off the New York Coast; as used by the Coast Guard, the “negative” impact of wind turbines on the radar system “would result in a loss of coastal radar monitoring.” Analysis of this critical safety and response issue calls for more technical review than currently exists.
A dizzying description of industrial players, leases, government agencies, and technical sounding energy phrases leaves even the determined reader at a loss to keep up. It is clear that the pace of decisions by the federal and state governments are bringing us very close to a no-return point over questions of design, scope and layout for the biggest ocean turbines ever to be installed (roughly 600′ tall or double the height of the Statue of Liberty). In addition, the dimensions of the proposed arrays themselves, dwarf anything previously seen in the world.
Whether you’re involved in the ocean economy or not, the current review process on off-shore wind will determine a lot about the future of the coastal New England communities we cherish. While ocean wind power is coming, there remain safety issues yet to be resolved.
Bill Straus is a state representative from Mattapoisett. His 10th Bristol District includes Mattapoisett, Marion, Rochester, Fairhaven and parts of wards 3 and 4 in New Bedford.