Q & A
A wind farm off Rhode Island's Block Island. Photo: Deepwater Wind.

What Does it Take to Bring Offshore Wind to Massachusetts? 

Offshore wind could bring cheap power to Massachusetts and help turn the state into a green tech hub. But before the turbines start turning, a variety of stakeholders, including the state’s iconic fishing industry, need to be brought on board. Elizabeth Turnbull Henry ’11, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, talked to Yale Insights about making the argument that economic development goes hand in hand with environmental sustainability.


The U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment warned in November that, without significant reduction of greenhouse gas emission, climate impacts will shrink the size of the American economy by 10% by the end of the century.

For coastal areas, including the most populous parts of Massachusetts, the local costs of inaction could be greater. Elizabeth Turnbull Henry ’11, a joint-degree graduate of Yale SOM and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, serves as president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. She says that sea level rise represents an “almost existential threat” for the state, but she also sees an opportunity. “The future of our economy could literally be designing and exporting climate solutions.”

Massachusetts has been exploring offshore wind for nearly two decades. Cape Wind, proposed in 2001, managed to unite Kennedys and Kochs in opposition. Since then, wind technology has made great strides, and the economic impacts of delaying climate change mitigation have become clearer. A new project, Vineyard Wind, aims to start construction in 2019, supported by a contract from the state for procurement of 800 megawatts of power. Vineyard Wind and several competitors have leased additional offshore sites with the expectation that Massachusetts aims to expand wind energy procurement to 3200 megawatts. But the project has contended with objections from the fishing industry, which will need to reroute around the turbines, and Cape Cod residents concerned about the location of a high-voltage cable. 

Turnbull talked with Yale Insights about the importance of demonstrating the link between a healthy environment and a vibrant economy and the complex process of building consensus for a project with a variety of stakeholders.
 

Q: What is the Environmental League of Massachusetts? What drew you to the organization?

The Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM) is a 120-year-old environmental advocacy organization. It has been at the intersection of policy and politics on Beacon Hill since 1898. I was drawn to the opportunity because Massachusetts has the potential to be a world leader in climate policy—and because ELM has the reputation and legacy of being a convener that brings environmental and business groups together. 

State governments are labs for democracy and for policy innovation; Massachusetts is a great lab. I think we can do for environmental policy what we have done for marriage equality and single-payer healthcare: design policy prototypes that become more broadly implemented elsewhere.

Too often, it seems that we’re presented with a false choice: environmental sustainability or economic vitality. I think smart environmental policy drives economic prosperity. That isn’t to say there aren’t difficult tradeoffs in specific instances, but if we don’t boldly address climate change and put environmental quality at the heart of our policymaking and planning, we undermine our own economic prosperity in the long run. 

To my knowledge, I’m the first MBA to lead the organization. I came from Adidas, where I spent seven years in their climate and energy program. I’m here to make the business case that our economic and environmental future are mutually reinforcing, and that markets and incentives can help solve climate change. 

Q: To what degree can markets solve environmental problems?

There are people who feel, perhaps rightfully, that capitalism in 2019 has left a lot of people out. For some, the mistrust extends to markets in general. Markets aren’t going to work universally to address every problem, but when well designed, they can create elegant and powerful positive feedback loops.

For example: pricing carbon. There are different ways to do it, but we’ve seen either cap-and-trade or fee-and-dividend models reduce carbon pollution and create funds that can be reinvested in initiatives that further drive down emissions for the benefit of everyone.

“There is no reason why those who want to create the batteries and wind turbines of the future shouldn’t come to Massachusetts to do it.” 

A strong economy and a strong environment go hand in hand in fundamental ways. When the economy is thriving, people have more funds to invest in innovation and clean tech, in advocacy, and in efforts at the frontier of addressing environmental issues. As those investments pay off, as the air gets cleaner and water gets cleaner, the burdens on public health fall, people become healthier and more productive, and that fuels a virtuous cycle. 

Massachusetts has one of the strongest economies of any state in the U.S. It is no coincidence that we also have some of the most enlightened environmental attitudes.

Q: The state is also facing challenges related to climate change. Does that create concern about the future?

I am acutely aware of what is at stake. Massachusetts has over 1,500 miles of coastline. I don’t know what percentage of our overall economic assets are within seven feet of today’s mean high tide, but it’s a whole lot—including much of Boston and Cambridge.  We face an almost existential threat.

But while we have a lot to lose, we also have a lot to gain from creative problem solving. We have an incredible legacy in innovation. Massachusetts is currently one of the best places in the world to start and grow a biotech company. We have the potential to do for cleantech what we did for biotech. The future of our economy could be designing and exporting climate solutions. 

There is no reason why those who want to create the batteries and wind turbines of the future shouldn’t come to Massachusetts to do it. 

A big part of the solution for New England is to boldly adopt offshore wind. Energy is critical to any economy. Today, the state imports almost all of its energy. We make very little here, but we have some of the best offshore wind resources of any state. New England is like the Saudi Arabia of wind off shore.

Looking to a carbon-constrained future, Massachusetts is facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for economic development and reduced greenhouse gas production. The state committed to a first procurement for 800 megawatts of power from a proposed offshore wind project. That is enough to power about 400,000 homes. And the next 800 MW procurement is coming soon. If the state is smart, we will commit to more big volumes and put ourselves on a path to lead this emerging industry. 

Q: Massachusetts has a rough history with offshore wind. How does that context shape the current proposal?

In 2001, Cape Wind proposed putting 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound about 4.5 miles off shore. It was a controversial plan. It split business interests. It split environmentalists. There were real concerns about shore birds and marine mammals. There were many concerns about views. It was expensive. All of that created political roadblocks.

The new wind project that would put 84 turbines 14 miles off the coast, far enough that they are barely visible from shore and also less likely to interfere with coastal flyways. They need to be built responsibly to address the needs of birds, marine mammals, and commercial fishing, but if done properly, there will be tremendous carbon benefits and rate-payer benefits.

The power from the Cape Wind project would have cost 24 cents a kilowatt hour. The new project will cost 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s approaching the price range of fossil fuel sources. By the mid-2020s we could reach price parity, where offshore wind no longer requires state contracts to compete. There are already places in Europe where this is the case. 

For us, the tipping point is on the horizon.

Q: How are the various stakeholders reacting to the new project?

The environmental community is all in, provided it is developed responsibly. There was recently a landmark agreement to ensure that the North Atlantic Right Whale can safely migrate through this first project during construction and operation. This is a great model for other species, too. The business groups are also very excited about the economic development opportunity and the chance to bring rate stability to customers.

The fishing industry has concerns. I recently found myself on the radio debating a representative of the fishing industry who opposes offshore wind development. We had a hard time even agreeing on facts. Fishing is an iconic industry in the state. It has a powerful lobby, one that lawmakers are loath to upset. Most fishing stocks are not impacted by offshore wind turbines in these waters. Scallop draggers, among the more vocal opponents, may have to change their dredging routes to accommodate the turbines. Some fish species actually thrive on all that new structure in the ocean. Turbines act as vertical reefs.

I sympathize with fishermen who have their backs against the wall from climate change. New England seas are warming faster than almost any other area of the ocean globally. We have real problems with ocean acidification and migrating or declining fish stocks. Their industry’s future faces massive uncertainty. I can see how offshore wind could feel like one more complicator.

For Massachusetts, the economic benefits from offshore wind are remarkable. Billions in economic development and ratepayer savings are on the horizon. Frankly, it can offer orders of magnitudes more than our fishing industry can—and it will be a big source of jobs for the sons and daughters of today’s fishermen.

Q: What are the next steps?

Right now, we have a window where support from state governments can help New England take a leadership role in developing the industry. Specifically we are pushing for Massachusetts to commit to more Power Purchase Agreements, or PPAs. ELM is convening a broad coalition of environmental groups and leading business advocates to articulate the value propositions of offshore wind. So far, Massachusetts has committed to 1,600 MW. We are pushing for 6,000 MW and another 6,000 MW for the other five New England states. Combined, 12,000 MW offshore wind would mean that when the wind is blowing, we power over one third of the New England grid with clean, renewable energy we make here. 

That first procurement was a significant step. Ongoing procurement commitments signal to developers that they should make investments. More investments will continue to drive prices down the cost curve; consider that the cost to harness energy from offshore wind has fallen some 80% in the last decade—and will continue to fall with more economies of scale.

More procurements also provide an important counterweight to New York and New Jersey, who recently committed to 9,000 MW and 3,500 MW, respectively. If Massachusetts and New England don’t step up, we will lose the jobs, the port investments, and the economic development that this industry could bring. Luckily for me, New Englanders get fired up at the prospect of losing to New York!

I’ve spent hours lying awake at night thinking about how we navigate the remaining hurdles. Our environmental and economic policy and planning need to be forward looking. Wind technician is the single fastest-growing job in the U.S. right now (though admittedly, it’s starting from a low base.) The kids in Cape Cod, Fall River, or New Bedford who once looked to fishing for opportunities need to be able to look at wind turbines and think, “This is my future.”  This is what keeps me up and night—and gets me up in the morning.

President, Environmental League of Massachusetts