Federal approval of the first large-scale offshore wind project in US waters, Vineyard Wind I, is a milestone in America’s offshore wind journey. Last month Decision report (ROD) for the 800 MW facility south of Cape Cod brings us one step closer to our fossil fuel habit and embracing the future of clean energy we need.
And that’s just the beginning. The NRDC rarely takes a position on specific renewable energy projects, and we do not do so here. With Vineyard Wind I there is a lot to celebrate and also a lot of work to come. We need this project and many others like it, and we need the right measures to protect marine life. We must continue to improve the way we install, build and operate offshore wind to maximize the benefits and minimize the impacts both for this historic project and the many ongoing projects.
We celebrate the announcement of the approval of Vineyard Wind I as a big step for an important new industry that promises healthier air free of mercury and other pollutants, as well as thousands of clean energy jobs. The Biden administration has pledged to support 30 GW of offshore wind power by 2030 with the goal of creating tens of thousands of jobs along the way and paving the way for 110 GW by 2050 Vineyard Wind I turns this vision into reality.
Vineyard Wind will provide a host of climate justice benefits, including enough electricity to power approximately 400,000 homes without producing air pollution. That is 1.68 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide that will not add to the climate crisis each year, the equivalent of taking 325,000 cars off the road. The project will create approximately 3,600 years of full-time employment. Many of these jobs will be union and local, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Vineyard Wind is also investing $ 27 million in local supply chain and port development, skills training, and resilient, low-income energy projects.
The project will create approximately 3,600 years of full-time employment. Many of these jobs will be union and local, with a focus on diversity and inclusion.
While these project benefits are undeniable and exciting, it is also essential to ensure that offshore wind energy progresses in a manner compatible with healthy ocean ecosystems. We appreciate Vineyard Wind’s constant willingness to work with stakeholders and help develop solutions to environmental issues. The Vineyard Wind ROD requires a long list of environmental mitigation measures designed to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts and monitor construction and operations, including:
- Using auto-sensing lighting, which only turns on lights above turbines when planes are nearby. A first for offshore wind, this system reduces the use of aviation lights by more than 99.9%, preventing fires from attracting birds or bats.
- To help protect the piping plover, the decision record also limits the times of year when construction can take place where the project cables come ashore. To help protect bats, there is a similar restriction on upland construction.
- Avoid transit through areas of visible jellyfish congregations or floating vegetation in summer and fall to ensure that sea turtles that may feed in these areas remain unharmed.
- Extensive monitoring before and after construction for a range of species.
Protecting the North Atlantic Right Whale
The NRDC has paid particular attention to ensuring the strongest possible protections for the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered sentinel species, serving as a weather vane for the ecosystem as a whole. We believe that approximately 356 of these majestic animals are still alive. a hasty correction with an estimated population of 409 whales just over a year ago. There are real concerns that no female can be left for the next 10-20 years.
To save this iconic species, we must act now. Travel at speeds of 10 knots or less reduces the likelihood of a whale being seriously injured or killed if struck by a vessel, and allow more time for the ship’s captain to react to a sighted whale. We also need to reduce noise from activities such as pile driving. Right whales must be able to feed undisturbed for the species to survive, and the loud noise from the installation of the foundations of the turbines could cause them to eat less or to flee this important feeding area.
The NRDC has worked with Vineyard Wind, the National Wildlife Foundation, and the Conservation Law Foundation to help secure important mitigation measures in the ROD that will help protect right whales, including:
- Pile driving is prohibited from December to April, a period during which whales are likely to be present in greater numbers.
- Actively monitor right whales through the combined use of visual observers and acoustic monitoring to detect if right whales are in the vicinity of the construction area, starting pile driving only when visibility is clear and stopping work if right whales are detected.
These are important steps, and we must do more. With the best available science indicating fewer whales and that the waters in the wind power areas of Rhode Island / Massachusetts and Massachusetts are staple feeding habitat for North Atlantic right whales year-round, we reviewed the level of protection needed. Recent data shows an almost constant presence of right whales in the project area and surrounding waters. This makes time restrictions part of the solution and indicates the need for tighter restrictions on vessel speed and noise. We’ll work to make sure we’re building from ROD to:
- Make sure whales are not nearby before the noise begins by increasing the area of visual clearance to the point where pile driving noise is less likely to disturb right whales while feeding. With an expected sound reduction of 12 dB, this area of visual clearance should be at least 3.1 miles from the pile driving site. It can be difficult with the weather conditions, and we have to be innovative to find ways to achieve this level of protection. One way is to further reduce pile driving noise. As the noise attenuation is greater, the requested areas in the ROD become more protective.
- Until we can detect whales and reduce the risk of ship collisions in real time, we need to keep ship speeds for all boats on the water at 10 knots or less. The ROD predicts vessel speeds of 10 knots or less during certain times of the year. The company’s construction and operation plan proposes to use helicopters during the long-term operation of the project, which would significantly reduce the number of vessel trips between the port and the project site. Unfortunately, right whales cannot withstand even a single ship 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 voyages, and we will be looking at the upcoming government incident harassment clearance on the project for more details on how vessel speeds and whale avoidance is discussed.
This new industry must be launched with strong guarantees that will build support and a foundation of trust.
The wind from the vineyard is invest in technological development, working with Greentown Labs and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to advance near real-time monitoring technology for marine mammals to alert operators in the region to the presence of North Atlantic right whales and other protected species and allow time to incorporate more protective measures, as necessary. The NRDC will be watching this closely to see its potential benefits. We are also working with all parties – agencies, industry, states – to ensure the slow speeds and strong measures necessary to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, given the increasing rate of decline of species and changing ocean conditions. We hope that this new industry will launch out with firm confidence in the measures adopted. Having strong guarantees will build support and a foundation of confidence for this industry.
It is the start of an exciting new industry and, to fully deliver on its promises, we must continue to work together to ensure it progresses in harmony with a precious and vulnerable marine environment.
This post originally appeared on NRDC Expert Blog.