Chicago may popularly be known as the ‘windy city’, but when it comes to pure wind speed, Boston, the coastal capital of Massachusetts, is windier.
Despite being the seventh smallest US state by land area, Massachusetts has the largest net technical energy potential from offshore wind when water depths of more than 60 metres are included, and is second only to Texas when it comes to water depths of less than 60 metres.
The state thus has a large chunk – about 15% — of what is a massive renewable energy resource, one which has seen rapid cost reductions over the past five years as a result of technological improvements and increased supply-chain scale, mainly in northern Europe.
In its study, 2016 Offshore Wind Energy Resource Assessment for the United States, the US’ National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) calculated the US offshore wind technical potential at a huge 7,203 TWh/yr, just over 1,000 TWh/r of which lies off Massachusetts.
The US has the offshore wind potential to generate almost twice the current electricity consumption of the entire country. In capacity terms, this represents more than 2,000 GW. The technical resource potential is what could be built with today’s technology, excluding environmentally-protected areas and areas of other use.
It may be small by land area, but with a population of nearly 7 million, Massachusetts is the US’ fourth most densely-populated state. It is home to nearly half the residents of the six-state region of New England.
The majority of the state’s population resides in the Greater Boston Area, which means energy demand is also concentrated on the coast, making it a perfect candidate for offshore wind generation.
Despite relatively low per capita energy consumption by US standards, the state consumes almost 12 times more energy than it produces. It has no fossil fuel resources of its own, and, of the US’ huge onshore wind capacity, which in the third quarter of 2019 surpassed 100 GW for the first time, a mere 113 MW is located in Massachusetts.
Around two-thirds of utility generation comes from natural gas-fired power plant, with the last coal-fired plant closing in 2018. The state’s only nuclear power plant, Pilgrim, closed in June this year, reducing the state’s electricity supply by 14%.
Even natural gas use is contentious in the state. Massachusetts sits at the end of the US gas supply network and suffered gas shortages in 2017 during a series of particularly cold bouts of weather.
Public opposition to new natural gas pipelines stems mainly, however, from environmental concerns. Massachusetts is part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a mandatory market-based regional system to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG), which started in 2009. The RGGI comprises nine north eastern US states, with a mandate to reduce GHG emissions by 2.5% each year from 2015 to 2020. From 2020 to 2030, the RGGI aims to reduce GHGs by a further 30%.
Offshore wind looks like the perfect opportunity to meet Massachusetts’ emissions targets, redress the imbalance between electricity imported from other states and its own generation, thereby improving security of supply without creating an overreliance on natural gas.
In 2016, Massachusetts passed legislation requiring the state’s electricity utilities to procure 1.6 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2027. In 2018, this was increased to 3.2 GW by 2035.
Despite the country’s massive offshore potential, of the US’ installed wind power, only a tiny proportion — 30 MW or just 0.03% — is offshore, but momentum is growing. According to the American Wind Energy Association, there is now 5,796 MW of offshore wind under construction or in a state of advanced development.
Yet US offshore wind has had and is having a difficult conception. Both state and local permits are required for near and onshore facilities, including grid connections, while any development more than 3 nautical miles offshore also requires federal government approvals.
Early projects had relatively high costs leading to opposition from rate payers and a constant barrage of legal challenges.
The US’s first major offshore wind project, Cape Wind, off the Massachusetts coast, spent seven years in development before eventually failing to progress. The 30-MW Block Wind project in neighbouring Rhode Island was initially conceived as a 385 MW wind farm extending into Massachusetts’ state waters before being downsized to its eventual modest size.
Last year, Massachusetts finally got another major project off the ground, awarding its first offshore wind solicitation to the 800 MW Vineyard wind project led by US utility Avangrid and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. This was followed at the end of October this year by a second award to the 800 MW Mayflower project led by Shell Renewable Energies and Portugal’s EDPR.
However, Vineyard Wind has also been delayed, owing to a decision by the US federal government in August that the project requires a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management determined that the large number of new projects planned on the east coast warranted an expansion of its earlier cumulative impact analysis.
The results of this new EIS are expected early next year and will then be open to public comment. The delay means that Vineyard Wind’s initial completion date of 2021-2022 is now less likely to be met. Pushing back Vineyard Wind also risks overlap with later projects, causing congestion in terms of access to suitable ports and installation vessels as the US is only in the early stages of scaling up its offshore wind supply chain.
Although the new EIS requirement is a setback, Vineyard Wind is a pioneering project likely to clarify the permitting and approval process for others. Massachusetts can in many ways claim to have undertaken the heavy lifting in opening the US wind sector, which should eventually unlock a huge new domestic source of energy for the country.
In this it is very much in line with international thinking. In October, the International Energy Agency published its Offshore Wind Outlook 2019, containing its most positive endorsement of the technology to date both on grounds of competitive costs and potential to underpin the transition to a low carbon energy future.