Granite Geek: Where should (and shouldn’t) offshore wind go in the Gulf of Maine?

By DAVID BROOKS

Granite Geek

Published: 07-05-2023 9:47 AM

This column should have been written 10 years ago.

In 2013 construction was about to start on Cape Wind, a 450-megawatt wind farm 7 miles south of Cape Cod. It was an exciting moment: European nations had been constructing wind farms in the North Sea for 22 years at that point and the U.S. was finally getting in the game. A column about New Hampshire preparation to join the fun would have been most appropriate.

But then, as you recall, Cape Wind was scuttled by rich NIMBY property owners and fossil-fuel companies with their beholden legislators. Since then almost nothing has happened. In nation-by-nation lists of offshore wind capacity these days, the U.S. gets lumped into the too-small-to-count category behind such energy behemoths as Belgium and Vietnam.

But finally – finally! – that’s changing, thanks to the Biden administration’s push and Congress’ passage of the misnamed but excellent Inflation Reduction Act. New Hampshire is prepping to join in the fun.

“It’s happening fast. I think we’ve done a really good job to protect our interest and develop the kind of strong cooperation with other states and BOEM (federal) officials so we get good decisions,” said Sen. David Watters, the state’s most public face of wind-power support.

The latest step came last month, when various state officials and interested parties filed comments about possible locations for floating wind turbines off our shores. Officially this was their response to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Call for Information and Nomination for Wind Energy Commercial Leasing Projects  in the Gulf of Maine, the latest step in the long process of creating wind farms in the gulf, a place that has a lot of wind.

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This comes as two large offshore wind projects further south – An 800-megawatt farm 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and a 130-megawatt farm 35 miles off New York’s Long Island – are competing about which was first to put “steel in the water” with an eye toward producing power by next year. We’re years away from any wind farms being built north of Cape Cod in the Gulf of Maine, and area that includes New Hampshire’s 200-mile economic interest zone, but planning is well underway.

Among those who contributed to the state response to BOEM was Cheri Patterson of the Marine Fisheries division of New Hampshire Fish and Game, a department understandably interested when large industrial platforms might be constructed in one of the world’s greatest fishing regions.

The comments listed a few areas that some say should definitely be off-limits because they’re such good fishing grounds, including a stretch east of a place called Caches Ledges where the sea floor rises up and creates “very complex habitat” that has “been integral to New Hampshire’s small sports and small fishing fleet.”

One of the things I learned from this report, by the way, is how convoluted the Gulf of Maine is, both geologically on the sea floor and hydrologically on the intersection of currents. That’s why it’s so attractive to so many species of sea life, and is so attractive to humans who want to eat that sea life. This complicates placement of wind farms, although we should note that they also do a lot of fishing in places where wind farms are going great guns like the North Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

Patterson said the state might want to see other areas in the Gulf of Maine protected from wind farms but it needs more details.

“The call area is huge. Without having it be reduced to something that’s manageable, it’s really hard to comment,” she said. “Without us knowing how much energy is to be expected out of the Gulf of Maine … how much offshore wind area is expected to be developed based on an energy plan, it’s hard to comment.”

Watters said such uncertainty, while frustrating, is to be expected at this point.

“Initial maps tend to be very large and there’s kind of a dance around that where folks – Coast Guard, Homeland Security, Department of Defense, environmentalists, all the fisheries, you name it – determine what areas need to be excluded,” he said. “You start out with the big area, do the important exclusions, then the actual auction next summer. … The industry will say we want this area here, this number of square miles, and that kicks into gear a much more extensive environmental review.”

Watters said “at least five developers” are interested in the Gulf of Maine, although the decision by two developers to back away from earlier plans to build in Massachusetts waters due to rising costs is a reminder that financing a wind farm can be tricky. Watters said it’s reasonable to expect three sites will be located in the gulf in the first rounds of construction, each capable of producing around 1,000 megawatts of electricity, around the size of Seabrook Station nuclear plant. Of course, a nuclear plant generates at least twice as much electricity as a similar wind farm over the course of a year because it runs more often.

Wind farms in the Gulf of Maine are also likely to use floating turbines rather than those bolted into the seafloor. That’s a relatively recent technology adding another layer of uncertainty for the effect on fishing, such as how far outside each turbine the anchors will extend.

Another big uncertainty involves where to put cabling that will bring electricity to the shore. New Hampshire has a couple of coastal locations whose big existing connections to the New England grid are obvious targets: Seabrook and the Newington gas plant.

As I’ve noted before, New Hampshire is late to the offshore-wind game compared to Massachusetts and Maine, which have already developed R&D and work apprenticeship programs, and GOP opposition to clean energy is proving an obstacle to luring industries that will support the energy transition.

But even if we don’t get direct jobs or tax revenue from offshore wind we will benefit because it will help protect us from higher wholesale electricity prices down the road, not to mention help the nation’s energy security.

“The resources out there are fabulous, steady and strong,” said Watters. “It is the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind.”

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