EARLIER THIS MONTH, Attorney General Maura Healey posed a fundamental question to the Department of Public Utilities. Now that Massachusetts has proclaimed a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, how do we get there? Implicit in Healey’s question is our recognition that the entire world must do this together. If we don’t, Boston and all the other great coastal cities will soon find themselves underwater.
In the face of global catastrophe, we see a glimmer of hope. Within the past two years, the US offshore wind energy industry has grown from 1,600 megawatts of commitments in Massachusetts alone to just under 30,000 megawatts of state commitments from Maine to Virginia. That’s enough electricity to power New England.
To think about 2050 for real is to think big – 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind is a good start, but we need 300,000 megawatts in order to transition our East Coast energy system to renewables. An industry of 300,000 megawatts would mean half a million new jobs, a chance to put social justice front and center on our coastlines, and over a trillion dollars of private investment in our energy infrastructure.
Such numbers may be hard to imagine from where we currently stand, but we have been watching the world change by orders of magnitude for a couple of years now. In January 2015, after the decline of the Cape Wind Project, federal offshore wind leases sold for around a dollar an acre. By December 2018, they were selling for $1,000 an acre.
Massachusetts leadership in 2016 on offshore wind gave rise to a new US industry that has outstripped every expectation. Ironically, Massachusetts in 2020 now finds itself struggling to think big within this once bold framework. As other states move forward with their own offshore wind plans, it is natural to wonder how these initial projects will set the stage for the larger build-out that will get us to 2050.
Do we have a vision for a modern, integrated offshore/onshore transmission system? The answer is, not yet. Offshore wind developers are compelled by their position in the competitive market to act on a project-by-project basis, minimizing costs without considering the long-term implications of today’s decisions. But as the industry keeps growing, it is time for Massachusetts to reframe the transmission discussion to encompass the entire 12,000 megawatt capacity of the offshore lease areas.
Offshore wind developers’ eagerness to claim landing spots, or points of interconnection, should be a clear indicator to public-sector decision makers that accessible and economical interconnection points are a precious resource. If they are not handled with care, their scarcity could hamstring the offshore wind industry well before its full potential is realized and leave underserved coastal communities without a voice in the energy transition.
In a regionally coordinated system, points of interconnection would be designed to service multiple wind farms and multiple states. Future points of interconnection would be designed considering the transmission system as a whole and relevant stakeholder input. New England states, offshore wind developers, and utilities would work together to standardize offshore transmission elements.
The timing is perfect for stimulus from the federal and state governments to drive change by supporting the coordination and build-out of an ocean grid transmission system. Such a system can help ensure the success of US offshore wind and make our aging coastal grid more secure and resilient. A great first step would be to move the first utility-scale 800 megawatt offshore wind project, Vineyard Wind, into construction as soon as possible. At the same time, we must invest in the rigorous evaluation of future build-out scenarios for 2030, 2040, and 2050 and we must recognize that onshore points of interconnection are critical to how we scale offshore wind.
Technology and markets alone will not solve this for us. Infrastructure touches all of our lives. It is our public good. And while we have successfully structured a market to lower the cost of offshore wind, that market must also be framed to include our aspirations for a safe, prosperous, and equitable 2050.
Eric Hines directs the offshore wind energy graduate program at Tufts University, where he is the Kentaro Tsutsumi professor of the practice in structural engineering.