Massachusetts has chosen energy company Vineyard Wind to build the state’s first offshore wind farm. Now, the company has broken ground for the first time, as it begins testing soil samples at a potential onshore site in Centerville.
Out at Covell's Beach in Centerville, Nate Mayo, the policy manager of Vineyard Wind, was witnessing what he called a big step forward for offshore wind power. Next to him, a large machine is drilling a hole 40 feet into the asphalt of the parking lot, as morning joggers and beach walkers pass by. The hole is only six inches in diameter, and from the outside, it seems fairly mundane—
but to Mayo and the people at Vineyard Wind, one small hole represents a world of possibility.
For an offshore wind farm to bring energy to the state, it needs a cable carrying that energy from the turbines to a power station on land. Vineyard Wind has proposed to run this cable either through the parking lot of Covell’s Beach, or underneath Lewis Bay in Hyannis. The soil samples they’re taking here may help to decide the cable’s route.
"Wind energy in America has been a long time coming, and this is kind of one tiny step that is exciting, even though it doesn't look like much more than drilling a little hole in a parking lot," Mayo said.
After graduating from college, Mayo joined the campaign of Massachusetts Senator Robert O’Leary and spent much of his time there fighting against Cape Wind, an offshore wind proposal that was shut down after 10 years of struggle with the community. He pointed out in the ocean to a relic of that project, to what looked like a thin stick standing just at the edge of the horizon.
"You can see the tower that was collecting the data that would inform Cape Wind's design," he said. "It's kind of this interesting changing of the guard."
Though he had fought against Cape Wind, he thinks the project was crucial to putting Massachusetts where it is today with offshore wind energy. And last month the state selected Vineyard Wind over two other energy companies to create an 800-megawatt offshore wind farm, enough energy to power four-hundred-thousand homes.
Vineyard Wind believes it was partially their community-oriented approach that set them apart from competitors. The company is backed by two large European companies specializing in offshore wind: Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, and Avangrid Renewables. But they’ve made steps to establish themselves locally, by creating a headquarters in New Bedford, and entering into a community benefits partnership with local energy collaborative Vineyard Power.
To get to know who exactly Vineyard Power is, you have to travel to Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard. Richard Andre, a founder and president of Vineyard Power lives on an energy efficient farm, which gets most of its power from a 110-foot-tall personal wind turbine he installed behind his house.
Cape Wind was happening when Andre first moved to the island a decade ago, and while he’s always loved wind power, he realized that if a wind farm was to ever succeed near the Vineyard, it would need the backing of locals. It was then that his collaborative was born in the spirit of his island farm.
"So it's local food, local energy, and from that, the connections to Vineyard Power came up," Andre said. "The island had a lot of discussions about raising our food locally, why can't we do the same with energy?"
They met Vineyard Wind back when the company was in the early stages of purchasing their plot of ocean in federal waters from the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management. It was from those early meetings that they secured a partnership with Vineyard Wind, from which they’ve gotten the company to agree to a maintenance center in Vineyard Haven to create more year-round jobs. They’re also hoping their partnership can soothe Cape Wind fears.
But the project is not without environmental concerns. Andrew Gottlieb of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod says a cable through Lewis Bay may disrupt a fragile ecosystem.
"On the construction side, we want to make sure the cable routing avoids sensitive resources, in particular, Egg Island in Lewis Bay, and whatever remaining eelgrass beds are in the bay," Gottlieb said.
He says they have submitted their concerns to the company, and will be waiting to see how Vineyard Wind will address them when moving forward with construction plans.
Though the state gave the green light to their project less than a month ago, Vineyard Wind has been laying the groundwork for building the country’s biggest offshore wind farm for almost a decade now. Erich Stephens, Chief Development Officer of Vineyard Wind said that the long buildup has given them the perspective to see this project through.
"It is a challenging undertaking, there's no doubt about it, we do have lots to learn yet," Stephens said. "But we also know a lot about what we're doing, so full steam ahead, but humbly so."
Currently, the company is negotiating rates with the state’s Department of Public Utilities, and approval and permitting will begin later this summer. Construction plans are still on track to begin in 2019.