It has been a historic couple of years for those who believe offshore wind projects are a critical component in Connecticut and the nation’s energy future.
Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm, the nation’s first commercial wind farm, began operating about 4 miles southeast of Block Island in December 2016. The five-turbine project generates 30 megawatts of power, enough for about 17,000 homes.
Connecticut made some history of its own this June when the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection selected Deepwater Wind as one of the winners of its renewable energy-procurement efforts. The 200-megawatt project, which could be operational by 2023, will be built in federal waters about halfway between Montauk, New York, and Martha’s Vineyard.
But Connecticut’s initial foray into offshore wind power pales in comparison to neighboring states in New England and the Northeast, some renewable energy experts are quick to point out.
The 200-megawatt project that DEEP officials selected in June represents only 3 percent of Connecticut’s electric load, according to Emily Lewis, a policy analyst with Acadia Center, a New England-based environmental group with offices in Hartford. The output is expected to power about 100,000 homes. Connecticut’s neighbors have far more ambitious offshore wind plans moving forward.
New Jersey’s goal is to have 3,500 megawatts of power in its portfolio by 2032, for example. Massachusetts has been a trailblazer in the wind power movement. Even tiny Rhode Island — with less than a third of Connecticut’s population — is procuring 400 megawatts of offshore wind power, Lewis says.
“It seems like Connecticut has been playing catch-up for years,” Lewis says.
State Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, chairwoman of the Connecticut legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, says that “a sense of proportion and perspective is required when making these kinds of ‘lagging behind’ comparisons.” She adds, “Our state has certain physical constraints that others don’t. The state lacks direct access to parts of the ocean where the wind power is at its strongest. The Sound is a fragile estuary — not wide-open ocean: wind speeds there are slow.”
Rob Klee, DEEP’s commissioner, also dismisses claims that Connecticut is playing catch-up to neighboring states when it comes to adding offshore wind to energy portfolios. “We have demonstrated with our actions, our priorities, that we are in the wind-power game,” Klee says.
The latest evidence of that, he says, is the July 31 request for proposals that DEEP released seeking energy producers that give off no carbon emissions.
Lewis says that amid concerns the owner of the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford — Virginia-based Dominion Energy — may close the plant early, Connecticut officials ought to view offshore wind “as an important part of any transition plan when the state has to move away from that source of power.”
The language in the RFP appears to give DEEP some flexibility in how much offshore wind it can select in the zero-carbon process. Klee describes the language in the RFP as “a recognition that nuclear [power] isn’t going to be around forever. This is about making the transition from nuclear to other renewables.”
Connecticut has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades. The first target comes in 2020, when emissions must be 10 percent below 1990 levels. By 2030, emissions must be 45 percent below 2001 levels, ramping up to 85 percent below 2001 levels by 2050. The state also must hit targets for percentage of Connecticut electricity that comes from renewables such as wind, solar and fuel cells. Twenty percent of power needs to be met by renewables by 2020. The percentage doubles a decade later.
Energy suppliers who want to be considered for inclusion in the zero-carbon RFP process have until Sept. 14 to submit their proposals. DEEP will announce the projects it has selected either by the end of this year or in early 2019, according to Klee. The expectation, Klee says, is that the specific language in this latest RFP will attract additional wind power proposals.
The issue of offshore wind and how much Connecticut needs to have in its energy portfolio isn’t just about making sure the state has enough energy in the coming years. An expansion of offshore wind projects serving southern New England states is expected to be a significant economic driver.
To that end, Massachusetts officials several years ago remade New Bedford, historically a whaling, fishing and shipbuilding center, into a hub to service offshore-wind projects off the state’s southeastern coast. Connecticut officials have seen what Massachusetts has done with New Bedford’s $113 million Marine Development Terminal and hope to duplicate that in New London, a city with its own rich whaling history.
The Connecticut Bond Commission has approved a $15 million investment in the city’s state pier so it can become a staging area for the Deepwater Wind project and any others that may come along in the future. Deepwater Wind has agreed to invest $15 million of its own money to develop New London as a staging area.
Turning the New London pier into a center for this and other heavy industry projects is expected to result in 1,400 direct and indirect jobs in Connecticut, according to state officials.
“This announcement, combined with the state’s recent commitment of bond funding to revitalize the State Pier, demonstrates that Connecticut is serious about securing its share of the highly paid offshore wind jobs coming to the Northeast,” says John Humphries, lead organizer for the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, a coalition of environmental groups and labor unions.
Mike Ausere, vice president of business development and energy strategy for the state’s largest utility, Eversource, is bullish on the role offshore wind will play in driving Connecticut and New England’s economic and energy future.
“The offshore wind industry is still in its infancy in the United States, but I see us catching up with the rest of the world quite quickly,” says Ausere, whose company was one of two unsuccessful bidders for Connecticut’s 200-megawatt project. “This is an industry that is moving very fast and we’re still very much committed to it. We are going to see a tremendous level of growth going forward.”
Wind farms off the southern New England coast have a unique advantage that shouldn’t be lost on Connecticut lawmakers, Ausere says. “New England’s major load centers are in southern New England and are relatively close to the ocean,” he says. “That reduces the cost of building lengthy transmission lines [from other parts of the region].”
Ausere declined to predict how many jobs might be created if New London becomes a staging area for the offshore wind industry. But he says if growth in offshore wind farms in New England and the Northeast plays out as expected, there will need to be multiple hubs up and down the New England coast to service them. “One advantage that New London has that New Bedford doesn’t is direct access to the ocean,” Ausere says. Klee says that is important because bridges and other types of impediments would make it harder to bring out to sea partially assembled turbines and towers that make up wind farms.
As the number of offshore wind farms off southern New England grows and reaches a critical mass in the coming years, it is likely to drive down the cost of the renewable energy source, according to Ausere. Currently, electricity produced by burning fossil fuels is cheaper than that created by offshore wind, he says.
Lewis of the Acadia Center says the price range for offshore wind power in Massachusetts is between 6.5 cents and 7.4 cents lower than most industry observers had expected. Original projections have Massachusetts consumers saving $1.4 billion over the life of a 20-year contract, she says.
Matthew Morrissey, vice president of Deepwater Wind’s development efforts in New England, says pricing of offshore wind is already highly competitive with fossil fuels in some cases. The 90-megawatt South Fork Wind Farm that Deepwater is developing more than 15 miles south of the Rhode Island coast was so competitively priced that the Long Island Power Authority selected it over a natural gas project. The project is supposed to begin operating in 2022.
ISO-New England, which oversees the regional electric grid, is projecting that fossil fuel-powered generation units equal to about 16 percent of the region’s current generating capacity will shut down between 2013 and 2021. These coal- and oil-fired and nuclear power plants are likely to be replaced primarily by new wind resources and natural gas-fired plants.
Morrissey says replacing older, less efficient power plants with offshore wind power is another way the industry will drive costs down for consumers.
Having the projects located in federal waters is critical because the strongest winds are found farther from shore. Some of the highest sustained wind speeds along the entire U.S. coast are found off southern New England’s shores, Ausere says, particularly in the winter when the region’s demand for electricity is high.
Reed, the legislator from Branford, is encouraged by the fact that the state’s two dominant energy companies “are now pushing hard for wind farm development. Eversource has proposed joint ventures of its own,” she says, adding that none of those projects have been selected thus far.
Eversource’s partner is a Danish company, Orsted, a well-known player in the renewable energy business. Their joint venture company is Bay State Wind.
Wind farms’ greater distances from shore also reduce the potential for complaints that wind turbines will spoil ocean views, a problem that some say was responsible in part for the demise of a Massachusetts project in Nantucket Sound several years ago.
A spokesman for the holding company that oversees The United Illuminating Co., Orange-based Avangrid, says the company “is firmly committed to renewable energy in general and wind energy in particular.”
Ed Crowder, a spokesman for the holding company, which oversees all of the U.S. properties of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, says Avangrid Renewables “is one of the nation’s leading renewable energy companies, with 7.1 million gigawatts of renewable energy capacity — mostly wind — and a presence in 22 states.”
But even though Avangrid is headquartered in Orange, Connecticut is not one of the states that are part of the company’s wind power portfolio.
Avangrid has partnered with a Danish company, Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, to create the joint venture known as the Vineyard Wind project. Massachusetts officials picked the 800-megawatt project and are giving Vineyard Wind the right to negotiate a purchase power agreement with that state’s electric utilities. Vineyard Wind could be operational by 2021, a full two years sooner than the Deepwater Wind project that Connecticut officials chose.
Connecticut residents who fear they will one day see wind farms in Long Island Sound should not worry about that possibility, Reed says.
“Any proposal to bring wind turbines offshore in Long Island Sound is dead on arrival,” she says. “The fishing industry, recreational boaters, commercial shipping, along with shoreline residents and environmentalists, would go on the attack.”
And while Connecticut has a smattering of land-based turbines — off Route 44 in Colebrook and in New Haven — high density levels and comparatively low wind speeds limit wind power’s potential on land. For the state to get a significant portion of its electricity from wind power, the future lies not on land, but out to sea.