IT WAS A PLUNGE I’ll never forget – into the Charles River with Gov. Bill Weld in 1996 to celebrate the passage of the Massachusetts Rivers Act. Let’s just say the Charles was a little murky that day at a time when clean, swimmable water in our rivers was not exactly the norm. The status quo was untenable, so we made a bold move with an eye to the future. The Charles and many rivers in the Commonwealth are vastly cleaner today, and we’re better as a Commonwealth because we all took the plunge to bring change.
Now global warming poses a much graver threat and the need for even more intensive state action. The good news is the Baker administration, through the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA), is poised to lead the way by embracing a carbon-neutral goal by 2050. There are many elements in the 2050 plan, but there’s no question that offshore wind has to play a major role.
Massachusetts is thinking big about wind. EOEEA’s Pathway Analysis for a decarbonized future envisions days in August 2050 where nearly 100 percent of the state’s electricity – 25,000 megawatts (MWs) – comes from offshore wind. Such an achievement would revolutionize the Commonwealth’s electricity supply. We have reached one milestone already: Massachusetts has led the nation with the first large-scale procurements for a total of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind from two 800 megawatt projects. At the direction of the Legislature, EOEEA’s Department of Energy Resources (DOER) undertook a study in 2019 that found benefit to directing the state utilities to purchase another 1,600 megawatts in the coming years. The combined 3,200 megawatts will be enough to meet 24 percent of the state’s electricity demand.
But to go big you need the infrastructure to scale offshore wind. Project-by-project procurements of standalone wind farms, each with its own transmission line, will not get us there. We need to build an ocean grid available to multiple wind farms that efficiently connects to shore. Leaders in wind energy, as near as Texas, which built out its electric grid to connect 28,000 megawatts of onshore wind, and as far as Germany, which built an ocean grid that now connects 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind, have proved that if you build it, the megawatts will come.
Massachusetts understands the importance of grid infrastructure to the future growth of offshore wind energy. The DOER’s 2019 study found that a transmission-only request for proposals could be issued before the next purchase of offshore wind. The agency is now poised to issue what likely will be the first-in-the-nation offshore transmission RFP to serve multiple wind farms and be the first step in building an offshore grid.
To date, the Commonwealth has been carefully considering what will work best for a transmission request for proposals by holding a technical conference and soliciting comments from stakeholders. The state should continue this process by seeking more stakeholder input to help craft a request for proposals that encompasses issues such as economic development benefits during a post-COVID-19 recovery, environmental justice, and reducing environmental impacts, both onshore and in the seabed.
Environmental justice is not a new concept, but it’s more important than ever. As secretary of environmental affairs from 1999 to 2002 during the Cellucci and Swift administrations, I along with my team implemented the first environmental justice criteria in evaluating environmental impacts of projects. In passing the Rivers Act we also weighed the economic and environmental impacts of the bill.
Now the Commonwealth stands at the threshold of being able to deliver a profound level of environmental justice by phasing out carbon-burning power plants that often disproportionately impact lower-income neighborhoods. An open question is how to make this transition efficiently through the lens of environmental justice as clean energy resources come online.
As I’ve learned from working with transmission developer Anbaric, a Durand & Anastas client, a well-planned system will also maximize our connection points onshore, where the wind energy lands before being distributed. The connection points need to be robust and strategically positioned to avoid power logjams onshore.
It’s an understatement to say a 25,000 megawatt offshore grid ultimately would be a significant job creator and could establish Massachusetts as the worldwide wind energy leader. A study last year by the Clean States Alliance, which includes Massachusetts, found that developing 8,000 megawatts of offshore wind could create up to 36,000 full-time US jobs. We’re starting down that path. Setting the stage for the offshore wind revolution promises to be a remarkable legacy for the Baker administration, a plunge worth making to protect our future.