Turning turbines: Massachusetts and the offshore wind energy industry

By Mikayla Heiss
BU News Service

BOSTON – Towers taller than the Statue of Liberty are popping up throughout the seas, generating energy for a booming industry.

Offshore wind energy companies, which are now leasing almost 390,000 acres of oceanic waters near Massachusetts, mark a rapidly growing industry that was recently prioritized in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call for a Blue New Deal.

As an alternative to fossil fuels, offshore wind turbines generate energy that is carried back to shore by cables. With the global market set to grow 13% annually, about 150 global offshore wind projects will be completed in the next five years. In waters around Massachusetts, multiple projects are already in progress.

Mayflower Wind, a joint venture of Shell New Energies and EDP Renewables Offshore North America, has begun contract negotiations with electric distribution companies. Their Director of Permitting and Development, Seth Kaplan, who previously worked at the Conservation Law Foundation, has watched the industry expand.

“When I started working in offshore wind as an environmental advocate in 1999, it was a tiny and new effort in Europe and entirely theoretical in the U.S.,” Kaplan said. “The extent and nature of the change cannot be overstated.”

Mayflower Wind expects their project to deliver 804 megawatts of clean energy to Massachusetts. For scale, one megawatt of energy has the potential to power about 370 houses, according to Walter Musial, principal engineer and leader of the offshore wind research platform at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Wind resources at sea stand out from their land-based counterparts. Due to the absence of large obstacles, such as houses or forests, oceanic winds can establish a smooth flow, contributing to the heightened power and consistency of offshore wind energy, Musial said.

But the process of building an offshore wind farm can be riddled with potential setbacks.        

In 2019, input from stakeholders prompted the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to further study the environmental impacts of various offshore wind energy projects. While the Bureau investigates the impacts, projects have been delayed. 

According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, there are certain areas of concern. Offshore wind farms can create acoustic pollution through increased boat traffic and the construction of the wind tower’s monopile or jacket foundations.

Cylinders, called monopiles, are pounded into the seabed by giant hammers, Musial said. When they’re hammered into the sea floor, the sound ripples throughout the ocean. 

This noise could negatively impact mammals by interfering with their communication and creating stress that could influence reproductive behaviors, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

“We need to be very serious about construction-period environmental impact concerns around marine animals,” said Kaplan.

Wind turbines also pose a threat to birds. Offshore wind projects may alter a bird’s habitat, or birds may die from collisions with wind turbines, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. When studying a Massachusetts-based project, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management reported minor impacts to jaegers and gulls.

According to Mass Audubon, though, estimated bird deaths from turbines is small in comparison to other causes, such as window collisions.

To address environmental concerns, Bay State Wind announced they would offer $2 million in research grants to protect marine mammals. Similarly, Vineyard Wind signed an agreement with the Conservation Law Fund and other organizations to limit their activity during the endangered North Atlantic right whale migration periods.

Offshore wind projects may also affect the lives of fishermen.

Fisheries stakeholders voiced concerns over how to travel to grounds beyond the proposed wind farms. The availability of fish within the project area could also change, and fishing gear may be damaged when it comes into contact with a wind farm’s equipment, such as unburied cables.

“It would be unacceptable to put at stake hundreds of thousands of skilled fishing jobs, healthy and sustainable seafood, important traditional ecological knowledge, and the very fabric of our coastal cultures in a rush to welcome a new industry before the trade-offs are fully considered,” the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance said in a 2018 statement. 

Technological innovations such as floating foundations aim to improve the industry and limit a wind farm’s impact. Floating foundations could allow companies to expand to deeper waters and offer environmental benefits, minimizing invasive seabed activities. 

According to the International Energy Agency, floating turbines have the potential to meet and surpass the world’s total electricity demand in 2040.

These foundations are the next step for many European countries, said Miriam Noonan, financial analyst for Catapult, a United Kingdom leader in offshore renewable energy. As the industry evolves, she said, the global community closely monitors U.S. offshore wind energy activities.

“It’s all happening very, very fast in the U.S.,” she said. “The U.S. is good at doing things at a big scale and pouring money in to make sure that they invest. It will be an interesting market to watch.” 

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