Offshore Wind Gets the Go-Ahead

Federal approval of the first utility-scale offshore wind project in U.S. waters, Vineyard Wind I, is an important milestone in America’s offshore wind journey. This week’s Record of Decision (ROD) for the 800MW facility south of Cape Cod brings us one step close to kicking our fossil fuel habit and embracing the clean energy future we need.

Allied Whale and Toby Stephenson

And it is just the beginning. NRDC rarely takes positions on specific renewable energy projects, and we’re not doing that here. With Vineyard Wind I there is much to celebrate and also much work ahead. We need this project and many more like it, and we need the correct measures in place to protect marine life. We must keep improving how we site, build, and operate offshore wind so that we maximize the benefits and minimize the impacts both for this historic project and the many projects on the way.

We celebrate the announcement of Vineyard Wind I’s approval as a big step for an important new industry that promises healthier air free of mercury and other pollutants, as well as thousands of well-paying clean energy jobs. The Biden-Harris administration has committed to supporting 30GW of offshore wind power by 2030 with the goal of creating tens of thousands of jobs along the way and unlocking a pathway to 110GW by 2050. Vineyard Wind I moves this vision toward reality.

Vineyard Wind will provide a host of climate justice benefits, including enough electricity to power about 400,000 homes without producing any air pollution. That’s 1.68 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide that won’t be adding to the climate crisis each year—the equivalent of taking 325,000 cars off the road. The project will create approximately 3,600 years-worth of fulltime employment, many of these jobs will be union and local, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Vineyard Wind is also investing $27 million into developing the local supply chain and ports, job training, and low-income and resilient energy projects.

While these project benefits are undeniable and exciting, it’s also critical to make sure that offshore wind power advances in a way that’s compatible with healthy ocean ecosystems. We appreciate Vineyard Wind’s consistent willingness to work with stakeholders, and to help develop solutions to environmental concerns. The Vineyard Wind ROD requires a long list of environmental mitigation measures intended to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts and monitor construction and operations, including:  

  • Use of Automatic Detection Lighting, which only turn on the lights on top of the turbines when planes are nearby. A first for offshore wind, this system reduces the use of the aviation lights by over 99.9%, keeping the lights from attracting birds or bats.
  • To help protect the piping plover, the Record of Decision also restricts the times of year that construction can happen where the project’s cables come ashore. To help protect bats, there’s a similar restriction on upland construction.
  • Avoiding transit through areas of visible jellyfish aggregations or floating vegetation in the summer and fall to ensure that sea turtles which may be feeding in these areas remain unharmed.
  • Extensive pre and post construction monitoring for a range of species.

Protecting the North Atlantic right whale

NRDC has been particularly focused on ensuring the strongest protections possible for the North Atlantic right whale, which is critically endangered and is a sentinel species, serving as a weathervane for the ecosystem as a whole. We now believe there are only about 356 of these majestic animals left alive—a precipitous correction from an estimated population size of 409 whales a little over a year ago. There are real concerns that there may be no females left in the next 10 to 20 years.

To save this iconic species, we must act now. Traveling at speeds of 10 knots or less reduces the probability that a whale will be seriously injured or killed if it is struck by a vessel, and allows more time for the vessel’s captain to react to a sighted whale. We must also reduce the noise from activities like pile driving. Right whales must be allowed to feed undisturbed if the species is to survive, and loud noise from installing turbine foundations could cause them eat less or flee this important feeding area.

NRDC has worked with Vineyard Wind, National Wildlife Foundation, and Conservation Law Foundation to help ensure significant mitigation measures in the ROD that will help to protect right whales, including:

  • Banning pile driving from December through April, the timeframe when whales are likely to be present in greatest numbers.
  • Actively watching for right whales through combined use of visual observers and acoustic monitoring to detect if right whales are near the construction area, commencing pile driving only when there’s clear visibility, and stopping work if right whales are detected.

These are important measures, and we need to do more. With the best available science now indicating fewer whales and that the waters throughout the Rhode Island/ Massachusetts and Massachusetts wind energy areas are a core foraging habitat for North Atlantic right whales year-round, we’ve reexamined the level of protections necessary. Recent data shows a near-constant presence of right whales in the project area and surrounding waters. This makes time restrictions only one part of the solution and indicates the need for more stringent vessel speed and noise restrictions. We will be working to help ensure that we build from the ROD to:

  • Make sure that whales aren’t nearby before the noise starts by increasing the visual clearance area to the point where pile driving noise is less likely to disturb right whales from foraging. With a planned 12 dB sound attenuation, this visual clearance area should be at least 5 kilometers out from the pile driving site. This can be challenging with weather, and we need to be innovative to find ways to achieve this level of protection. One way is to further reduce the noise of pile driving. As greater noise attenuation is achieved, the zones called for in the ROD become more protective.
  • Until we can detect whales and reduce the risk of vessel collision in real-time, we need to keep vessel speeds for all boats on the water at 10 knots or less. The ROD calls for vessel speeds of 10 knots or less during certain times of the year. The company’s construction and operations plan proposes to use helicopters during the long-term operation of the project, which would significantly reduce the number of vessel trips to and from the port to the project site. Unfortunately, right whales cannot withstand even a single vessel strike per year from any boat operating anywhere on the water if the species is to survive. There are other exciting options for the industry to reduce the number and speed of vessel trips, and we will be reviewing the government’s upcoming Incidental Harassment Authorization on the project to see if there’s any greater detail as to how vessel speed and avoiding whales is addressed.

Vineyard Wind is investing in technology development, working with Greentown Labs and Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to advance a near real-time monitoring technology for marine mammals to alert operators in the area to the presence of North Atlantic right whales and other protected species and allow time to incorporate more protective measures, as needed. NRDC will be watching this closely to see its potential benefits. We are also working with all parties—agencies, the industry, states—to ensure slow speeds and the strong measures needed to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, in light of the increasing rate of decline of the species and changing ocean conditions. We want this new industry to launch with firm confidence in the measures being adopted. Having strong safeguards will build support and a foundation of trust for this industry.

This is the beginning of an exciting new industry and, to deliver on its full promise, we need to keep working together to ensure it advances in harmony with a valuable and vulnerable marine environment.