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For decades, scientists have seen vast potential for offshore wind energy. Despite this, offshore wind in the U.S. barely exists, as projects have faced local opposition and concern about how they would affect ocean habitats and fisheries. But with a new emphasis on renewable energy from the Biden Administration, that may soon change. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports from New Bedford, MA as part of our ongoing series: ‘Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change.”
For decades, supporters of offshore wind in the United States have looked to the ocean off the east coast and seen the potential for renewable energy projects that could power millions of homes.
Despite its promise, up to now offshore wind projects in the U.S. barely exist, stymied by local opposition and concerns over possible effects on ocean habitats and commercial fisheries. But with a new emphasis on generating renewable energy on public land and waters from the Biden administration, that may change, and quickly.
Newshour weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports from New Bedford, Massachusetts. This story is part of our ongoing series, "Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change."
For more than two centuries, New Bedford's economy has been deeply tied to the ocean. First as the epicenter of the whaling industry in the 19th century, and today as the largest fishing port in the United States, by value of the catch landed here.
Fishing will always be important to us. But at the same time, we know that there's room for more here in the Port of New Bedford and there's more room for more out on the open ocean.
Jon Mitchell is the mayor of New Bedford, and he has been positioning this coastal Massachusetts city, and its port, to be the center of the burgeoning offshore wind industry in the US.
We here in New Bedford see it as a generational opportunity to attract investment. We're really good at what we do on the water. And we want to parlay those skills and the infrastructure into offshore wind and other maritime industries that allow us to continue to grow and create jobs.
Given its strong winds, relatively shallow water, and proximity to major cities, scientists have long seen the US's east coast as an ideal place for siting offshore wind projects. Back in 2009, then-Vice President Biden heralded new federal guidelines to help spur the industry.
Vice-President Joe Biden:
These final rules are going to enable Delaware and enable the nation to tap into our ocean's vast, vast sustainable resources. To generate clean energy in an environmentally sound and safe manner.
But flash forward to today, more than a decade later, and there are only two small projects – 7 wind turbines in total – in operation. But that could soon change.
President Joe Biden:
First order I'm signing is tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad.
In one of his first acts as President, Joe Biden signed an executive order directing his Administration to increase renewable energy production on public lands and offshore waters.
About a month later, the lead federal agency regulating offshore wind published its final environmental impact statement for Vineyard Wind, the first large-scale wind project in the US off the coast of Massachusetts. Now in its final stages of approval, the project would generate enough power for about 400 thousand homes.
Lars Pedersen is the CEO of Vineyard Wind, which is a joint venture between Copenhagen Investment Partners and electric utility, Avangrid.
For us in this industry it is about two things clean and affordable energy, but it's also about economic development.
I sat down with him at the New Bedford Commerce Marine Terminal, which is the only facility in the US specifically designed for staging large offshore wind projects.
There will be hundreds of people working here, moving big components, operating cranes, testing electrical equipment. Offshore, people living 14 days on, 14 days off on vessels. For this project there will be more than two thousand jobs that will be created during the construction and we will create a similar amount of jobs during the operation.
But getting to this point has been a long road. Vineyard first leased these 260 square miles of ocean back in 2015, spent millions surveying the area, and applied to federal regulators for a permit in 2017. Two years later, the process was paused as regulators decided to look at the cumulative impact of Vineyard, and several other projects planned in the same area.
All together, there are more than a dozen leases in various stages of development up and down the east coast. and industry groups estimate that between 20 and 30 thousand megawatts of offshore wind – or enough to power more than 12 million homes – will be operational by 2030.
While the US has not yet approved a major project, in Europe, offshore wind has grown exponentially in the last 15 years, with more than 40 commercial-scale projects now operating.
I've been fortunate to be part of when this industry matured in Europe and seeing it from a small sort of technology-oriented niche industry to what it is today, the mainstay of Northern Europe's clean energy revolution. And I think we will see exactly the same happen here.
The US's relative late start does mean that projects are able to incorporate new technology. Vineyard will be the first to use a new turbine made by GE that stands more than 850 feet tall, with each of its three blades stretching more than the length of a football field.
Every time the blade spins twice, you can power a home for a day. So it's really impressive hardware. So we have been able to shrink the footprint of the project from 108 positions down to 62 while still producing the power we have promised to Massachusetts.
It's here on a beach on Cape Cod that buried cables carrying power from the Vineyard Wind Project will come ashore underneath this beach and be connected to the New England Electricity Grid. But the actual turbines, which will be about 35 miles out in the ocean will be almost invisible from here.
But while the Vineyard Wind project has not faced the local opposition of earlier projects like Cape Wind, which was famously opposed by residents like former Senator Ted Kennedy, that doesn't mean that everyone is on board.
There are a lot of questions that should be answered before these structures go in the water. And I think it's been fast-tracked and pushed in in the name of green energy.
Eric Hansen is a fourth-generation fisherman based in New Bedford. He owns two boats, which travel up and down the east coast to reach regulated stocks of scallops. While Vineyard Wind is not in an area he fishes, Hansen is concerned the turbines will create a navigational hazard.
When you get bad weather or heavy fog, and then if you throw a boat in there that's moving through besides yourself, to try and pick out the fixed target to the ball from the moving target on the radar screen will be next to impossible.
About 40 miles down the coast in Point Judith, Rhode Island, fisherman Christopher Brown is concerned how Vineyard Wind, and the cumulative impact of future offshore wind projects, will affect fisheries, including the whiting, squid, and flounders he fishes for.
We're afraid that it's going to displace more boats into less ocean. That will increase the impacts on the bottom and the stocks. We don't know what it's going to do to systemic productivity. We have hoped for a precautionary approach, but that kind of looks like it's going out the window.
Brown, who also serves as president of the Seafood Harvesters of America, says his opposition to Vineyard Wind does not mean he's opposed to renewable energy.
You know, we believe in climate change. The ocean is changing faster in New England than anywhere on the planet.
You're out there on the water. What is your experience of climate change?
We see traditional species of fish are no longer available. We see new species of fish that I've never seen in my life. I tell people all the time the ocean I fish in right now is not my grandfather's ocean. You know, much like there's no atheists in foxholes, you know, there are no climate change deniers in the commercial fishing industry.
Back in New Bedford, Mayor Jon Mitchell sees part of his role as mediating between commercial fishing interests and offshore wind developers.
We've tried to do our job here in New Bedford as a place that has a certain level of expertise around commercial fishing, to get the offshore wind industry to understand the needs of the fishing industry and how they can be readily accommodated by offshore wind.
Opponents argue that vineyard wind has not done enough to mitigate the potential impact and that there haven't been enough independent studies to sort of review to show that the promised benefits outweigh the potential harm to fishermen and ocean habitat and navigation. So what is your response to that?
Yeah, I don't agree with, with phrasing it in that way. I don't think there are many energy projects or projects for that sake in the US that have undergone the review that this project has gone. We have had 400 plus public meetings and hearings about the project. We have had thousands and thousands of staff hours into outreach with commercial fishing.
Pedersen also points out that throughout the regulatory process, Vineyard Wind has made changes, including agreeing to expand the distance between turbines and to change their orientation to make Vineyard and future projects nearby more uniform and easy to navigate. Vineyard Wind is also funding ongoing studies of local fisheries, and agreed to compensate fishermen who show they have a financial loss because of the project.
But for New Bedford scalloper Eric Hansen, the mitigations offered and the lengthy regulatory process does not mean developers like Vineyard Wind are taking the concerns of fishermen into account.
Somebody will say, well, will you listen to the fisherman? But that's all it is. It's just a checkbox. They listened. Whether they act on it or not, that's something that's debatable. You have to remember seafood is a renewable resource also, and to displace one renewable resource, which has been proven over centuries with another that has been proven for the last 10 or 20 years. I think should be looked at in a different light.
We understand that it's a new industry. We understand some of the concerns. But this has been an extremely thorough review. Our ultimate goal is to coexist. And therefore, we think it's very important that we now get to the stage where we actually build something and then we can see in real life the impacts.
With a final decision from federal regulators expected within weeks, Vineyard Wind hopes to start construction this fall, with an aim of actually generating energy by 2023.
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Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
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