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US Interior completes environmental review of nation’s largest offshore wind project

08 March 2021 Amena Saiyid

A US Department of the Interior agency announced 8 March it has completed an environmental review of what would be the nation's largest commercial-scale offshore wind project when completed.

Vineyard Wind's proposed 800 megawatt (MW) offshore wind farm, which the agency said is slated for completion in the second quarter of 2024, would be located some 12 nautical miles off the coasts of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts.

Receiving a final environmental impact statement from the US Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) brings Vineyard Wind one step closer towards construction.

The next step for BOEM, which is Interior's lead agency for overseeing the offshore wind development process, is to coordinate with other federal agencies, notably the US Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries, on signing off on the final record of decision that will either disapprove or approve the proposed offshore project with changes. This decision is due 30 days from the date the final environmental review is published in the Federal Register.

As part of the environmental review, BOEM had to determine whether the facility met renewable energy needs in New England.

According to the project developers, the facility would provide enough electricity to power more than 400,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts, and reduce carbon emissions by more than 1.6 million metric tons per year.

BOEM evaluated various construction scenarios, but leaned toward one with 84 wind turbines installed in 100 of the 106 locations identified by the developer.

Since Vineyard Wind submitted its application in 2017, it has been trying to get federal approval for the project. The developer said the offshore project has already received the relevant permits from Massachusetts as well as regional and local bodies.

In December 2020, Vineyard Wind asked BOEM to halt its review process after the Trump administration indicated the developer would have to start the permitting process again because it was seeking to use a larger-sized turbine than identified in its original application. Many observers saw this move by the prior administration as a stalling tactic.

Under the Biden administration, which is seeing offshore wind as one approach to decarbonizing the US power sector, BOEM's environmental review of Vineyard Wind resumed in February.

Vineyard Wind is a joint venture between Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc., and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP).

"More than three years of federal review and public comment is nearing its conclusion and 2021 is poised to be a momentous year for our project and the broader offshore wind industry," Lars Pedersen, Vineyard Wind chief executive officer said in an 8 March statement.

Likewise, Avangrid CEO Dennis Arriola said the review has brought the project one step closer to realizing what he called a historical clean energy project.

To date, there are only two offshore facilities in the US: the 30-MW, five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island waters; and the 12-MW, two-turbine Dominion Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot in federal waters off the Virginia coast.

The Sierra Club said 8 March that BOEM's thorough environmental review of Vineyard Wind has not only set up a workable framework for Massachusetts' first offshore wind farm, but also established "a proven model for other offshore wind energy developments along the East Coast to replicate."

The American Clean Power Association (ACP) lauded BOEM's action in a 9 March statement.

"By any measure, this is a breakthrough for offshore wind energy in the United States," Heather Zichal, ACP chief executive officer, said, adding, "Not even two months into a new Administration, years of delay have finally culminated in a thorough analysis that should soon put this infrastructure investment on its way to generating clean power for the region and creating good jobs at home."

Likewise, Rear Admiral (Ret.) Samuel De Bow, who now serves an advisor to Dawson & Associates, an environmental consulting firm, said BOEM's action is a positive sign that the Biden administration is serious about pursuing offshore wind energy and about expediting the permitting process.

"I think this is a sign the administration said they would accomplish this review, and in march they came out with it," De Bow told IHS Markit 9 March.

IHS Markit analysis of data show at least 21.9 GW related to 21 offshore wind projects dotting the US Atlantic Coast in varying stages of permitting, planning, and construction.

Each of the projects that are currently pending approval have to go through the standard permitting process, with the agencies that still have to evaluate the environmental impacts, including the effects on on marine mammals and birds. Thoes reviews aren't going away. The key is whether the administration is able to streamline this process, he added.

"Timely reviews are essential A lot of capital is caught up in these projects that is waiting to be utilized," De Bow said.

Posted 08 March 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate and Energy Research Analyst

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