A lighthouse on Martha's Vineyard.
Martha's Vineyard. Vineyard Wind, in the waters off of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, is anticipated to be the first commercial-scale offshore wind development in the U.S. Credit: Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism / Creative Commons

Massachusetts faces growing competition from other states trying to take advantage of the anticipated surge in offshore wind development by building onshore infrastructure to support the burgeoning industry. 

Vineyard Wind, which would be the country’s first commercial-scale offshore wind development, is expected to receive a major federal approval within weeks, kicking off the growth of a long-simmering industry in the region. Anticipating this project in the waters off of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, the state has made major investments in developing facilities to support the industry. 

Recently, however, other states across the Northeast have announced their own ambitious plans for port infrastructure and economic development, and some in Massachusetts are feeling the pressure to confirm the state’s position as a leader. 

“The opinion is relatively widely held that we could’ve been doing more in the last few years to maintain and increase our lead,” said Eric Hines, director of the Tufts University offshore wind engineering graduate program. “There’s a collective sense of urgency right now to really get serious about investing for the future on the land side.”

Massachusetts has been at the forefront of the offshore wind conversation since 2001, when businessman Jim Gordon proposed Cape Wind, a 468-megawatt wind farm that would have been located in the waters south of Cape Cod. Facing harsh opposition from powerful opponents, that plan was eventually defeated. 

The state’s current push for offshore wind began in 2016 with the passage of a law calling for the procurement of up to 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy. In 2018, Vineyard Wind was awarded the contract for the first 800 megawatts; the following year Mayflower Wind was selected to provide the next 800 megawatts. Since then, Massachusetts has upped its total planned procurements to a total of 5,600 megawatts.

Along the way, public and private parties in the state have been developing support facilities on land. In the city of New Bedford, on the south coast, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center developed a $113 million marine commerce terminal designed specifically for use by the offshore wind industry. In Charlestown, a waterfront neighborhood of Boston, the clean energy center built a $40 million facility for testing turbine blades, the largest such facility in North America.

In Somerset, a small town near the Rhode Island border, a private company has taken over a site formerly occupied by a coal-burning power plant and demolished the previous facilities with the goal of creating a support center for offshore wind.

“We are a first mover and continue to be a leader in the offshore wind space,” said Bruce Carlisle, managing director for offshore wind at the clean energy center. 

Massachusetts’ planned projects have been wading through the permitting process. Vineyard Wind, in particular, experienced delays at the federal level that many suspect were related to former President Donald Trump’s disdain for wind energy

At the same time, other states joined in the pursuit of offshore wind. Along the East Coast, states have committed to procuring some 29,000 megawatts of offshore wind, according to the American Clean Power Association. 

These states have also started planning port facilities and other onshore infrastructure to support the industry. New Jersey, which has aiming for 7,500 megawatts by 2035, is planning an offshore wind port for 200 acres along the Delaware River in the southern part of the state with an expected cost of $300 million to $500 million. The state has also pledged another $250 million to build a manufacturing facility for turbine components. 

New York, which has a goal of 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, has announced plans for a facility to manufacture turbine towers at the port of Albany. 

These procurement spending commitments in a concentrated region send a signal to wind developers that these locations are committed to the industry, said Brandon Burke, vice president for policy and regulatory engagement at the Business Network for Offshore Wind, a nonprofit that promotes the development of the industry.  

“New York and New Jersey together are your biggest offshore wind markets and a lot of attention has been paid to them,” he said. “One of the biggest key elements here is investor and developer certainty.” 

At the same time, Massachusetts has announced no new moves to develop onshore facilities since the completion of the New Bedford site in 2015. The Somerset site has not yet been used for offshore wind purposes. 

“We probably haven’t seen the level of investments in this side of the industry that we have seen in other states like New York, New Jersey, and Virginia in recent years,” said Susannah Hatch, clean energy coalition director with the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

There is still, however, plenty of reason to believe Massachusetts can remain competitive onshore, said those with industry knowledge. 

The importance and impact of New Bedford commerce terminal should not be underestimated, even though it has not yet been used to its potential, Carlisle said. Both Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind have already struck deals to use the port as their staging area for receiving, assembling, and transporting turbine components during construction. 

Also, when construction begins, the market is likely to swing into action developing onshore facilities. Massachusetts is well poised to capture this business, he said. In 2017, the clean energy center released a port and infrastructure assessment that aims to appeal to private businesses in the sector by detailing the features, advantages, and possibilities of a variety of sites from the South Coast up to the North Shore. 

“There’s plenty of capital in this market,” Carlisle said. “And if the market sees a long-term pathway to a business venture, they will follow that.”

Hines also points to the advantages created by the state’s early start in the industry. Even though Cape Wind did not come to fruition, the planning process for the project laid a base of expertise and experience that is unique to Massachusetts, he said. Further, the University of Massachusetts schools, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Northeastern University, and his own employer, Tufts, are all at the forefront of research into issues involving fisheries, workforce development, and wind technology.

“The level of expertise Massachusetts has on the ground is extremely well established and runs very deep,” he said.

There is also a growing optimism — particularly given President Joe Biden’s strong support for offshore wind — that the industry will be robust enough to support ports and other onshore businesses throughout the region, without any state being a winner or a loser. 

“I think the general consensus is that, in the long run, there will be more than enough action in this industry, if we actually bring it to scale, for everyone,” Hatch said. “There is going to need to be a sort of constellation of infrastructure up and down the East Coast.”

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.