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Marine Commerce Terminal Gearing Up For Offshore Wind Projects

Back in March, we reported on the Marine Commerce Terminal, a hundred-million-dollar port facility under construction in New Bedford.  When it’s completed, supporters say it will serve as a staging area for offshore wind projects. It’s been widely assumed that Cape Wind will be the facility’s first offshore wind customer. But the Terminal isn’t completed yet. And Cape Wind officials could have some competition from a deepwater port in neighboring Rhode Island. 

Since the project broke ground in April, 2013, the steady pounding of pile-drivers and the din of crane engines have filled the air at the site along New Bedford’s harbor. City officials said construction should be complete by December – but it’s hard to tell.

Reporter: “We’ve backed up right now to the Marine Commerce Terminal as it’s progressing in its construction. And I have to say it doesn’t really look like much. The cofferdam is now completed – and that’s the large bulkhead that sits at the front of this property. The rest of it is just a lotta trucks around, some cranes, piles of crushed rock, and not a lotta people working here today, for whatever reason.”

Looking out at the construction site, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said it’s the structure underneath that counts. He said the terminal is built to hold the extremely heavy components that the wind industry will produce.

“We’re talking about 900-ton foundations and 300-ton towers,” Mitchell said. “So people have a sense of it, if you look out at, say, the windmills in Falmouth or Fairhaven, offshore windmills will be about a third taller than those, and the blades much larger.”

The problem is, the terminal isn’t finished yet. But then again, either is Cape Wind. The effort to install 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound is still facing legal challenges. It’s also still putting together its financing. So it’s hard to say exactly when the first turbine foundation would be driven into the sandy bottom of Nantucket Sound.

Mayor Mitchell said that a contract with Cape Wind had not yet been signed yet, but when Cape Wind is ready to go, so will New Bedford’s new marine terminal.

“We’re hopeful that they’re going to be ready in 2015 to hit the play button,” he said.

But what if Cape Wind is ready and the marine terminal isn’t? Quonset Development Corporation in Rhode Island said Cape Wind has a tentative agreement with them to lease 14 acres in North Kingstown, as a staging area to build its 130-turbine wind farm.

Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rogers released a statement saying the Rhode Island site is only one part of what he called Cape Wind’s ‘overall port strategy.’

The statement seems to leave the door open for using the New Bedford terminal at some point, if by chance the terminal is not operational when Cape Wind is ready to go.

Gerard Dhooge, president of the Boston/New England Maritime Trades Council, said there’s no doubt New Bedford will be ready. He said about 150 people already are working on the site, and he’s optimistic Cape Wind will mean even more jobs – although just how many is unclear.

“We’re waiting for word from Cape Wind officials, and the Weeks-Manson officials, who are the construction managers,” said Dhooge. “We are just starting the process of negotiating a project labor agreement with them, and awaiting the signing of the final financial agreements by Cape Wind and by Weeks-Manson. But we’re expecting that by the end of this year we’ll have all that in place.”

There’s a lot riding on the facility, but also a lot of opportunity. In the near future, not only is Nantucket Sound expected to host offshore wind turbines, but other projects are being considered off Rhode Island, and in federal waters south of Martha’s Vineyard.

And when the renewable energy winds aren’t blowing, Mayor Mitchell said the Terminal has other uses.

“When it’s not doing offshore wind related project cargo, as it’s called, it can do other project cargo, it can do a relatively small amount of containers, it can do some of the break-bulk cargo that New Bedford already does – break-bulk cargo is the palletized cargo, usually produce, that comes from places like North Africa,” Mitchell said.

That flexibility would be important if Cape Wind isn’t ready by 2015. It also would be important if, for whatever reason, Cape Wind decides to do its business elsewhere.