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New offshore wind contracts could boost South Coast economy

Three of Deepwater Wind's turbines stand off Block Island, R.I. The Biden administration is pushing for a sharp increase in offshore wind energy development along the East Coast.
Michael Dwyer
/
AP
Three of Deepwater Wind's turbines stand off Block Island, R.I. The Biden administration is pushing for a sharp increase in offshore wind energy development along the East Coast.

The offshore wind industry took a big step forward this month. The state awarded contracts for two new windfarms. That could shake up the economies, and even the look and feel, of some South Coast communities. CAI host Patrick Flanary spoke with South Coast reporter Daniel Ackerman about the new wind farm contracts.

Patrick Flanary: Daniel, tell us about these wind farms. Who's building these farms? Where will they be?

Daniel Ackerman: One of the contracts was awarded to Vineyard Wind to make a 1,200 megawatt wind farm. And the second contract was awarded to Mayflower Wind to generate a smaller 400 megawatts. The state is already familiar with these two developers, Vineyard and Mayflower. They each already held a contract for an offshore wind farm with the state. Both of these new wind farms will be located in the same general region, south of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. They'll both be well offshore, at least 15 miles. They will be in federal waters further out than the state-managed waters.

PF: These are huge, right? I mean, these are multibillion dollar projects, and not all the action happens out at sea. I'd love you to tell us about how these offshore wind farms will affect some of the port cities in the region.

DA: Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind both announced major development projects in coastal communities. Mayflower in recent months has set up an office in Fall River. They’re planning to make that city a hub for themselves. And with their new wind farm contract this month, Mayflower has committed to building a new port along the Fall River waterfront. So this port is going to be just south of the Braga Bridge — near downtown, right along the Taunton River in Fall River. That’s where Mayflower will base its long-term operations and maintenance of its wind farms. So there will be vessels and crews coming and going from Fall River to service those wind turbines offshore. So that's going to bring some new activity to the waterfront there in Fall River. Vineyard Wind has committed to build a new offshore wind port up in Salem, but they also announced a manufacturing facility on the South Coast. Vineyard Wind is partnering with an Italian company that makes electrical cable. So this factory is going to be at Brayton Point in Somerset. It's going to make the undersea electrical cable that carries the power generated by the offshore wind farms along the bottom of the ocean and onto shore, where it can feed into the state's electric grid.

PF: And what are you hearing from folks on the South Coast? I would assume we're going to see a boom town here with employment, right?

DA: Yeah, the folks that I talked to seemed pretty excited, starting with Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan. He told me that the new port Mayflower is building is really going to boost the city's economy and provide a lot of jobs, like you say. So here's what he told me:

Paul Coogan: So there's going to be a lot of jobs with this project, and a lot of new money in the city of Fall River, and a shot in the arm to the waterfront. So it's a win across the board.

PF: So that's Fall River. And then across the Taunton River in Somerset, folks in Brayton Point that I talked to expressed — I guess I would call it — cautious optimism. So Brayton Point is this site with a really fascinating history. It used to house a coal-fired power plant that was decommissioned in 2017. Since then, the site has been used for a scrap metal operation. And neighbors have been complaining about excessive noise and metal dust blowing into their neighborhood from that scrap operation. So the folks that I talked to in that neighborhood — they're hopeful that this new electric cable factory will be a better, cleaner piece of their neighborhood. Here's Kathy Souza — she's a member of the Somerset Select Board, who also lives in that Brayton Point neighborhood.

Kathy Souza: We welcome clean industry. We welcome manufacturing and jobs to the town. That's much needed. We just hope that this is the real deal and that they're a great neighbor and that we can all work together.

PF: It sounds locally like people are on board with this. Let's zoom out to the rest of the state. What do these two major projects mean for the electricity grid?

DA: Well, it means a lot more renewable energy. Combined, the two projects double the amount of offshore wind electricity that will be flowing into the grid in the coming decade. Officials said that, once these projects are completed, offshore wind will account for about a quarter of the state's electric load. So that's a significant amount for a new industry that's basically starting from scratch here.

PF: So, Daniel, if I live in the region, will I be getting my power from a non-fossil fuel? And will my electricity bill change at all?

DA: Two great questions, and the answers are maybe and maybe. So overall, those electrons that are buzzing through your light bulbs — they're still going to be a mix of fossil fuel and renewable wind energy. But the share of that renewable wind energy is definitely going to jump once these wind farms come online. And then as for the cost that you'll see on your electrical bill, that is also uncertain. State officials did announce a price cap for wholesale energy costs for these projects. But it's important to keep in mind that once the electric utilities buy that wholesale energy, they then distribute it through the grid and into your home. And those distribution costs will remain relatively stable. So it's a complicated picture, but overall it could mean a modest increase in your energy bill. But we really have to wait and see, especially since the cost of wind energy is falling every year as the technology and the economy of scale improves.

Daniel covers the South Coast for WCAI. He comes to the station from Minnesota Public Radio, where he reported on science and the environment. Daniel has produced audio documentaries on a motley mix of topics, from the science of sewage to the history of automobile license plates. He holds a PhD in climate change ecology from the University of Minnesota. Daniel is a 2021-22 Report For America corps member.
Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.