The CEO of Vineyard Wind said the country’s first large offshore wind project will move forward, despite being told by the Interior Department last week that the company would need to refile a new application for a federal environmental permit.
Vineyard abruptly announced this month that it was temporarily withdrawing its application from the federal review process. The company said the move was needed to incorporate larger turbines into its plan (Climatewire, Dec. 2).
But sources close to the process said Interior’s decision to delay a final verdict on the project until five days before Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration contributed to the company’s withdrawal.
Federal officials told Vineyard Wind on Friday that it would need to file a new application to restart the process. The development was first reported by Bloomberg.
In an interview yesterday, Vineyard CEO Lars Pedersen said he did not think the company would need to start the permitting process from scratch once it resubmits a new application.
"This project has been going through an extremely rigorous review," Pedersen said, pointing to an environmental impact study started in 2018 and a cumulative impact study initiated last year. "We feel that all of these studies and all of the reviews that have been done on the project are still there. And therefore, we feel like that a reintroduction of the project in front of the agency can be completed in a relatively short period of time."
The move amounts to a massive bet on the incoming Biden administration’s willingness to advance the project. Federal regulators will have the ultimate say over how to treat the new application.
Biden has signaled support for offshore wind. A team of Obama administration veterans recommended that the president-elect approve offshore wind permits within his first 100 days as part of the administration’s wider climate agenda.
Offshore wind is also a top priority of states in the Northeast, which view the industry as a key source of new jobs and a central cog in their climate plans. Their concerns have held little sway in the Trump administration but are likely to resonate with the incoming president’s team, said one source close to the process.
Vineyard is an 800-megawatt project planned off the coast of Massachusetts. The state has signed a deal to buy the company’s power. It is expected to generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes and reduce carbon emissions by 1.6 million tons a year.
But the developer has had a rocky relationship with the Trump administration. The project initially appeared on track for quick approval under the administration’s effort to streamline permitting for energy projects.
As the development advanced, concerns from the commercial fishing industry mounted. It argued that towers and cables would ensnare nets and pushed for wider transportation lanes between turbines.
Wind developers maintain that their developments were sited in lease areas designed to minimize the impact on fisheries. Vineyard’s draft environmental study concluded that 2.5% of total squid, mackerel and butterfish revenues come from its lease area (Climatewire, June 15). Squid is the chief species pursued in the area.
A compromise has proved elusive. Vineyard and four other developers responded by announcing a new layout of their turbines in an attempt to assuage fishing group concerns (Climatewire, Nov. 19, 2019). It did not persuade them, and fishing companies have continued to push for wider transportation lanes that wind companies say would make their projects inviable.
In 2019, just as BOEM was preparing to release a final environmental impact statement, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced federal regulators would first conduct a cumulative impact study of Vineyard and other projects along the East Coast (Climatewire, Aug. 12, 2019). That analysis was slated to be finalized last month, only to be delayed once again.
The delays created considerable angst inside the company. Several sources said there was a sense that Interior had pulled the rug out from under Vineyard, and that it could not risk Bernhardt’s handing down an adverse decision on the eve of Biden’s inauguration.
Pedersen said concern the Trump administration would reject the project did not play a role in the company’s decision. Vineyard has a "very professional working relationship with BOEM and the Department of Interior," he said.
"It has been a very thorough review," he said. "And, you know, we’re happy to be at the end of the process. It’s a complicated, first-of-its-kind, first-in-the-nation project."
Fishing groups expressed concern about the withdrawal. In a letter to BOEM and Interior earlier this month, the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA) said Vineyard’s withdrawal "marks the latest confusing episode in [a] years-long parade of announcements of starts, stops, changes, cans, can’t, wills and won’ts."
RODA said it was concerned that BOEM staff members were working too closely with developers while not offering the same level of input to fishing groups.
Annie Hawkins, the group’s executive director, said the fishing industry has little preference for whether the project’s fate is decided by President Trump or Biden. Mostly, she said, it wants to see improved transparency from federal agencies and to have its concerns addressed.
"It seems too much of this is done in a black box, and it needs to be equitable, fair and transparent. That also goes to whether one party can be allowed to ‘venue shop’ for political administrations," she said. "It’s a question of fairness, making decisions based on the merits, and following a robust public process."
Pedersen said Vineyard was aware that the withdrawal could create the perception that it was administration shopping, but he said the move was affected by other factors. The decision was prompted by Vineyard’s adoption of GE Renewable Energy’s new Haliade-X turbine, he said.
The 13 MW turbine boasts almost double the generating capacity of the turbine Vineyard had initially planned on using, enabling the company to reduce the number of towers in the project’s first phase from 84 to 62. Vineyard’s initial plans called for 108 towers.
The Vineyard Wind CEO said the company is hoping it can complete the federal permitting process by the latter half of 2021, enabling it to make a financial investment decision.
"There’s a lot of work streams that we are focused on, and one of them is federal permitting. It’s a very important one. But we also need to make sure that we get the design and certification. We need to conclude all our contracts. We need to make sure that we can get the financing in place at the same time," Pedersen said. "And we felt that while taking a little bit of a delay upfront would just give us a more certain path to having all these work streams converge in the second half of 2021, so that we could actually get started with constructing this project."
The company now hopes the project will be operational in 2023.
Reporter Heather Richards contributed.
This story also appears in Climatewire.