One Square Mile: New Bedford's Gamble On Offshore Wind Energy

Feb 6, 2018

For the past eight years, New Bedford has been advocating for offshore wind and preparing their port to service offshore wind projects. But why is the city betting on this industry?

"It’s windy, windy, windy just off our coast," Paul Vigeant, managing director at the New Bedford Wind Energy Center, said. "It’s a unique physical property of the earth that every day, every night the gulf stream and the ocean collides with the Northern jet stream in the atmosphere and it creates this dynamic, sustainable, renewable energy source."

Vigeant added, a couple hundred miles off of New Bedford’s coast, the water isn’t as deep compared to other parts of the country. That makes it a lot easier to install and maintain offshore wind turbines to harness all that wind.

Vigeant himself is the Wind Energy Center. He's been working closely with the Port of New Bedford and the city's Economic Development Council to spread the center's message.

"For the past eight years, we've been at Chamber of Commerce meetings, business meetings, community meetings, Rotary meetings, just informing people about the importance of this and the need to get ready," Vigeant said. 

Paul Vigeant, managing director of the New Bedford Wind Energy Center, looks up a map that shows the potential for a booming offshore wind industry south of New Bedford.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

Offshore wind energy is an up and coming industry in Massachusetts.

The state recently passed a law that requires power companies to solicit 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2027, enough to power half of the state's homes.

Right now, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and the state's attorney general are reviewing three applications for large-scale offshore wind energy projects, which, once approved, could be the first projects of their size in the country.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also reported "Wind Turbine Service Technician" is projected to be the second fastest growing occupation between 2016 and 2026. New Bedford has been working to become a hub for jobs like these and other work related to offshore wind.

For example, Vigeant, who is also vice president of workforce development at Bristol Community College in Fall River, said the school has been offering a wind technician certificate program since 2013. Students learn how to construct turbines, maintain them once they're deployed and learn about tower safety.

However, commercial fishermen have their own concern about offshore wind farms.

"Location is the biggest issue that fishermen have with the turbines," Eric Hansen, boat owner and former scallop fishermen, said. 

Eric Hansen aboard his boat, Endeavor, in Fairhaven.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

Location matters because spinning blades confuse the instruments fishermen use to navigate through fog on their way back from fishing trips. Because of that, Hansen said fishermen would have to go miles out of their way to navigate around wind farms.

"Fishermen, when they’re coming back from a grueling trip at sea, (are) typically very, very tired and (you) don’t need (to) put an extra burden on a very tired person because then you get a catastrophe," Hansen said.

According to Hansen, Massachusetts has been going about siting offshore wind projects the right way. He said they’re listening to what fishermen have to say and have already cut the Massachusetts wind energy area, which is about 25 miles south of New Bedford, in half to accommodate commercial fishermen. 

Eric Hansen's scallop vessel, Endeavor, is docked at a shipyard in Fairhaven.
Credit Avory Brookins / RIPR

However, Hansen would like to see them establish transit lanes through the wind farm so boats could have an easier path back to port.

"(The offshore wind developers are) very engaged with the (fishermen) we're introducing them to, and I'm hoping that that's the template for the future with all the offshore wind development," Edward Anthes-Washburn, executive director of the Port of New Bedford, said.

The port supports more than 6,200 jobs and has an economic impact of $9.8 billion. Ninety percent of that impact is tied to commercial fishing or fish processing.

However, Anthes-Washburn said New Bedford needs to diversify its business opportunities and they’re looking to offshore wind.

"The scale of our infrastructure is perfect, we’re blessed with geographical advantages, we’re closest to the actual turbines, so offshore wind is a big part of what we hope will be part of the port's portfolio in the future," said Anthes-Washburn.

Boats docked at the Port of New Bedford.
Credit Lynn Arditi / RIPR

Right now, the port is undergoing a more than $200 million commercial makeover to prepare for the offshore wind industry, including the construction of a marine commerce terminal a few years ago financed by the state. The terminal supports the construction and deployment of offshore wind projects, and is the first of its kind in the U.S.

The rest of the $200 million would come from state and federal grants or state grants accompanied by municipal bonds.

To date, between foundation grants and the city's own contribution of municipal tax revenues, New Bedford itself has invested more than $1 million in offshore wind.

But is all of this investment really going to pay off? Is New Bedford setting its sights too high on the success of offshore wind?

Vigeant doesn’t think so. 

"We’ve prepared. We’ve used these eight years of knowledge and development to get ourselves ready, to talk to these (offshore wind) companies, to figure out what they need, to get in place what they need, and now it’s time to launch," Vigeant said. 

Final approval of offshore winds projects in Massachusetts is expected this summer. Wind farms could be operational off of New Bedford's coast as early as 2021.