All three federal agencies that weighed in on Vineyard Wind’s construction and operations plan have coalesced around the east-to-west orientation of the 84 wind turbines.
The three agencies are supporting a distance of at least 1 mile between the turbines, which is a marked contrast to the company’s diagonal layout plan with less space between, according to the Times review of 349 public comments on the draft environmental impact statement.
National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Administrator Michael Pentony faults the draft statement with failing to fully analyze current data showing “clear patterns of east-west orientation of fishing activity throughout much of the lease area.”
While an east-to-west turbine layout “would not fully eliminate impacts to fishing operations, available information suggests impacts would be minimized for some fishing vessels, allowing them to continue to fish the area and thus reducing the negative economic impacts they incur,” Pentony said.
From the Coast Guard’s perspective, the 84-turbine plan, combined with the east-to-west orientation and wider spacing, would offer the best option for navigation safety and vessel traffic within the lease area, Chris Glander, the commander of the Coast Guard’s Sector Southeastern New England, said in his comments on the draft.
The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, continues to support an alternative layout that features east-to-west wind turbine orientation and a minimum of 1 nautical mile spacing between the turbines in all directions, combined with the reduced project size of 84 turbines, said Timothy Timmermann, who directs the Office of Environmental Review.
Rhode Island commercial fishermen and coastal managers have also endorsed an east-west grid with 1 nautical mile space between both individual turbines and rows of them, which Timmermann noted in his comments.
“That design appears to have the greatest potential for impact minimization and avoidance,” Timmermann said.
For Vineyard Wind, however, changing the grid layout could delay the project for a year, according to the draft.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is the lead federal permitting agency for the wind farm construction and operation. The Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service serve as cooperating federal agencies.
In early July, the bureau told Vineyard Wind that more time was needed to produce the final version of the draft environmental impact statement beyond the summer deadlines set earlier in the year. The bureau needs more time to incorporate feedback from stakeholders and cooperating agencies, and officially has until next March to complete all reviews and permitting, according to a spokesman.
More details about the delay have emerged.
The bureau is looking into concerns from other federal agencies as stated in the draft environmental impact statement, Gov. Charlie Baker said following a visit on Monday with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Congressman William Keating, D-Bourne, also said that Vineyard Wind is being offered “alternatives” by the bureau, and that both he and Baker are working toward moving the project forward.
“That’s our focus, (to deal) with some of the issues that’ve been raised by the federal agencies,” Baker said.
But Vineyard Wind has said that unless the bureau issues the final report by the end of August, the company will find it “very challenging to move forward” with the wind farm project as it is currently configured.
After announcing a year ago the signing of contracts to sell 800 megawatts of electricity to three Massachusetts utility companies, Vineyard Wind has been on a tight schedule to start construction by the end of the year to take advantage of dwindling federal investment tax credits. The use of tax credits and the long-term power purchase contracts were key factors in the low price per kilowatt-hour the company is offering, according to company executives.
Vineyard Wind has declined to comment on its communications with the bureau.
Among the 349 public comments on the draft statement, about half expressed unequivocal support for the project, largely based on support for the need for renewable energy. About 5% expressed absolute opposition to the project, primarily due to concerns about the future of fishing. The rest, largely, cited improvements needed in the draft report.
In the draft statement, alternatives A-F were laid out for the wind farm.
Alternative A is the project as originally proposed by Vineyard Wind with up to 100 turbines, and up to two electrical service platforms. The turbines would be placed in a gridlike array with rows oriented on a diagonal spaced 0.75 to 1 nautical miles apart, and with export cable landings either in Barnstable or West Yarmouth. Construction of the wind farm would start this year, and be completed in 2022, with a lifespan of 30 years.
Alternative B lands the cable in Barnstable alone, which has already been affirmed by both the host community agreement signed last October by Vineyard Wind and the town, and through approval from the state energy facilities siting board in May.
Alternative C would prohibit wind turbines in the northern and northeastern corner of the company’s federal leased area. That would require six turbines in the planned layout to move south and a new connecting cable, according to the draft statement. Alternative C is not seen as delaying the project, according to the draft.
Alternative D calls for either requiring 1 mile of space between the turbines, or requiring an east-to-west orientation of the turbines, also with 1-mile spacing. Both options could potentially delay the project by a year.
Alternative D2 is what is being endorsed by National Marine Fisheries Service, the Coast Guard and the EPA.
Alternative E is to reduce the project to 84 wind turbines, which Vineyard Wind already announced it would do. Alternative F is for the bureau to not accept the project.
In his 44-page commentary, Pentony continued to champion the fishing industry by questioning conclusions that he said lacked factual support. He said that an undefined financial mitigation package is relied upon in the draft to reduce the potentially negative impacts of the wind farm. The draft does not contain the latest data on fish landings and revenue, and does not sufficiently address the economic impacts on the fishing industry, nor the social and cultural impacts, Pentony said.
“Impacts to the fishing communities go beyond just revenue loss,” Pentony said. “It is not clear how a simple financial package could reduce a major impact to minor.”
In February, an advisory board of Rhode Island fishermen accepted a financial package from Vineyard Wind that includes $4.2 million in payments over 30 years for direct impacts to commercial fishermen. It also calls for the creation of a $12.5 million trust set up over five years that could be used to cover additional costs to fishermen associated with the project.
“As we have been from the start, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is committed to ensuring fishing activities and offshore renewable energy interests can operate in harmony,” a National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman said. “At this point, the permitting process (with Vineyard Wind) is proceeding and our agencies are working cooperatively to resolve concerns related to the environmental impact statement.”