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Interior Department Approves First Large-scale Offshore Wind Farm in the U.S.

By  Joshua Partlow

The Biden administration on Tuesday approved the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the United States, a project that envisions building 62 turbines off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and creating enough electricity to power 400,000 homes.

Vineyard Wind is the first of several massive offshore wind-farm proposals that could put more than 3,000 wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean from Maine to North Carolina. The Biden administration has committed to processing the other 13 projects under federal review by 2025 in an attempt to meet the administration’s ambitious goal of producing 30,000 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind by 2030, powering some 10 million homes.

The goal is part of the Biden administration’s effort to fight climate change by shifting away from fossil fuels.

“I believe that a clean-energy future is within our grasp in the United States,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a conference call Tuesday, describing the approval of Vineyard Wind as “a significant milestone in our efforts to build a clean and more equitable energy future while addressing the climate emergency.”

Biden administration officials said that the Vineyard Wind project will create about 3,600 jobs for American workers.

So far, just two offshore pilot projects are operational — one off Rhode Island and the other off Virginia. Together, their seven turbines produce 42 megawatts of electricity.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was governor of Rhode Island when the five-turbine Block Island wind farm was completed in late 2016.

“As governor, I saw this is complicated. This is complex in order to do it right,” Raimondo said on the conference call, adding, “We created thousands of jobs just in that wind farm.”

“If you think about how complex it is to erect a wind turbine in the middle of the ocean — you need engineers, you need operating engineers, you need laborers, you need electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, and they have to be highly trained, highly skilled,” she said. “It’s actually very dangerous work. And it’s skilled work. But they’re good, high-paying jobs.”

The coming projects are far larger than the existing pilot projects and have generated opposition from some coastal communities and commercial fishermen. Environmentalists have also raised concerns about the potential impact on birds, fish and marine mammals, including the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species that migrates through swaths of ocean designated for wind-farm construction.

“This is a pivotal moment, and one with high stakes for birds,” Joel Merriman, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy campaign, said in a statement. “We will be looking for strict protections for wildlife as this new industry takes flight in U.S. waters.”

Vineyard Wind is a joint venture of Avangrid, which is a U.S. offshoot of the Spanish energy company Iberdrola, and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners out of Denmark. Europe’s offshore wind industry is decades ahead of the United States, and European companies dominate the industry and its supply chain.

Vineyard Wind’s final federal permit from the Interior Department will allow it to build up to 84 turbines in its lease area on the outer continental shelf in an area that is 12 nautical miles off the coasts of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, said Amanda Lefton, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees permitting.

The project will have a capacity to produce 800 megawatts of electricity using turbines supplied by General Electric that are more than 800 feet tall.

“If you think about where this is going for this country and the goals that the administration has to have 30 gigawatts for offshore wind and this is the start of it, I think it really is a historic day for the industry and also for our government,” Dennis V. Arriola, chief executive of Avangrid, said in an interview.

Once financing is finalized, Vineyard Wind’s construction is expected to begin later this year, along with work on the onshore substation in Barnstable, Mass., where the cables from the turbines will reach land. Turbines are projected to be built and begin producing electricity by 2023, with the project being completed the following year.

The Vineyard Wind project has been more than a decade in the making; the first meetings to talk about possible locations for the wind farm were in 2009. The federal government has been reviewing it for more than three years and developers have taken more than 400 public meetings with various stakeholders, Arriola said. Along the way, the project size was reduced by 60 percent and turbines were spaced one nautical mile apart in response to concern from commercial fishermen and others, as well as advances in turbine technology.

Vineyard Wind developers have agreed to pay $37.7 million to commercial fishermen in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to compensate them for future losses.

But many commercial fishermen in New England remain staunchly opposed to the wind turbines, proposed to be built on traditional fishing grounds for scallops, squid, sea bass and other fish. Fishermen say that it will be dangerous to navigate among turbines, particularly in poor weather and because of interference with radar navigation systems.

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