Vineyard Wind’s turbine layout is likely one of the sticking points that prompted federal regulators late last week to expand their environmental review of the wind farm to include an analysis of how it would interact with a host of other projects in the planning stages along the East Coast.
While Massachusetts politicians accused the Trump administration of delaying the project to death, officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have been struggling with whether to look at the wind farm in isolation or as the first of many to come. Vineyard Wind officials sometimes feel as if they are being penalized for going first, with the delays throwing off their aggressive construction timetable and threatening to derail the project.
The project’s turbine layout is a good example of the problem. Vineyard Wind has approximately 84 turbines arranged on a northwest-southeast orientation, with the turbines nearly 9/10ths of a nautical mile apart. Most fishing interests are pushing for an east-west orientation, with the turbines separated by 1 nautical mile at a minimum.
It sounds like the two sides are not that far apart, but there doesn’t appear to be much room for compromise. Officials say any significant change in the layout of the wind farm would require Vineyard Wind to redo ocean bottom survey research that would not only cost tens of millions of dollars more but delay construction for a year or two.
Lars Pedersen, the CEO of Vineyard Wind, said his company consulted with fishing groups before deciding to go with the northwest-southeast orientation, which he said was favored by New Bedford scallopers who believed the layout would allow them to travel more quickly through the wind farm to their fishing grounds.
Pedersen acknowledged other fishing groups favor an east-west orientation, and said his company may adopt that layout on future wind farm projects. But he said his company made the decision to go with the northwest-southeast layout on this project because the scallop industry is so important financially to the region.
“You can’t do both,” Pedersen said of the two types of wind farm orientations.
Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a group of fishing interests that formed last year, said the east-west layout is favored by her organization because it would lessen, but not eliminate, impacts on fishing activity in the wind farm area. She said most fish distribute along “benthic curves” that run east to west in the area of the wind farm.
Hawkins also said Vineyard Wind can’t be viewed in isolation. As a standalone project, its layout isn’t a huge problem, she said. But with other proposed wind farms off the coast leaning toward an east-west orientation, Vineyard Wind’s layout, if approved as is, could end up being different from the others and make navigation very difficult.
“This one would be an outlier,” Hawkins said. “It just doesn’t line up.”
The distance between turbines is another key point of contention between the fishing and offshore wind industries. Pedersen said 9/10ths of a nautical mile – the distance between turbines in Vineyard Wind’s layout – is roughly the distance from home plate at Fenway Park to Trinity Church in Copley Square. He said the distance between turbines in Europe is typically less – around 6/10ths of a nautical miles.
Hawkins said most fishing groups would prefer more space as they move up and down the lanes between turbines. She said the European example cited by Pedersen really doesn’t apply because fishing in the midst of European wind farms is prohibited, except in the United Kingdom.
South Fork Wind Farm, being developed by Orsted Offshore Wind and Eversource Energy off the coast of Rhode Island and Long Island, is proposing an east-west orientation with turbines spaced 1 nautical mile apart. The spacing on a north-south basis, however, is less, prompting complaints from fishermen. (Early this year, Orsted partnered with the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance to improve communication between offshore wind developers and the fishing industry.)
There is also a dispute about how much fishing actually occurs within the footprint of the Vineyard Wind project. Vineyard Wind paid for a study done by King & Associates of Plymouth that estimated the total value of the catch in the area was $471,242 a year. Vineyard Wind officials say they intend to make significantly more money available to mitigate any losses incurred by fishermen in dealing with the wind farm.
Hawkins said other studies suggest the fish catch in the area is larger. She noted a study done by Thomas Sproul, an associate professor of economics at the University of Rhode Island, found the King & Associates study undervalued the potential impact of the wind farm.
“I believe that the King Report is very far from a comprehensive and objective evaluation of economic loss to MA commercial fishing,” Sproul said in the summary of his analysis, which cited several specific deficiencies. “That said, the King Report does contain some elements of truth, in that the science is inconclusive in many cases and that exact evaluation of ‘exposure’ versus ‘actual losses’ needs to be taken into account in any mitigation evaluation.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, a champion of the Vineyard Wind project, met in Washington with top officials at the Interior Department on July 29 to learn more about their concerns and said afterward that he planned to develop a “cure plan” over the next few days to address them.
No one has specified exactly what needs to be cured. Baker said a number of federal agencies have raised concerns, but Reuters reported that one of the major roadblocks is the impact the wind farm would have on the fishing industry. The news agency reported that the National Marine Fisheries Service declined to support Vineyard Wind’s environmental permit because the project failed to fully address the concerns of the fishing industry, with orientation and the distance between turbines the two most prominent issues.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an Interior Department agency, last week decided to expand its environmental review of Vineyard Wind project to better understand the cumulative impact of the many wind farm projects being proposed along the eastern seaboard. Many in the fishing industry say the approach has merit, but it’s tough on Vineyard Wind, which has said it would be very difficult to move forward with the project in its current configuration unless its environmental impact statement is approved by the end of this month.
Hawkins is not optimistic that a cure plan that satisfies all sides can be developed. “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of concessions from fishermen,” she said. “I don’t really see a way the fishing industry is going to come out and say it’s not such a big deal.”