Late last week, developers of the Cape Wind project officially gave up.
The groundbreaking offshore wind project has been nearly dead for the past two years, undone by a decade and a half of lawsuits and opposition, and outpaced by advances in technology and reductions in cost that have allowed later-arriving developers to build while Cape Wind languished.
On Friday, Jim Gordon, CEO of Cape Wind developer Energy Management Inc., confirmed that the company had relinquished the 2010 lease on the stretch of southern Massachusetts coastline where it had once planned to spend more than $2.6 billion to build up to 130 offshore wind turbines.
The news ends a downward spiral for the project that had been ongoing since 2015, when utilities NStar and National Grid canceled their offtake agreements for 460 megawatts of power from the project.
Cape Wind was undone by a wide-ranging set of well-funded opponents, ranging from a Koch Brothers-funded NIMBY group to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, as well as Native American tribes and state and local groups, whose legal challenges bogged down the project and led to it missing deadlines that triggered the utility pullouts.
Meanwhile, other major projects have surpassed Cape Wind. America's first offshore wind project, Deepwater Wind’s 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm off the Rhode Island coast, was finished last year. It will be followed up by a 90-megawatt farm off New York’s Long Island, to be delivered to the Long Island Power Authority. New York state has identified a much larger region, roughly equidistant to Long Island and the Jersey Shore, that could add up to as much as 800 megawatts of capacity.
Late last year, the Norwegian oil company Statoil won an auction for a development area off New York's coast for $42 million after 33 rounds of bidding. And this spring, Avangrid, a subsidiary of the Spanish energy multinational Iberdrola, won a $9 million bid for 122,405 acres off the coast of North Carolina, competing against German developer wpd offshore, Alpha LLC and Statoil.
Much of this development is being pioneered by the European companies that have helped make the continent an offshore wind powerhouse. Europe hosted 90 percent of the world’s 14.4 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity as of the end of 2016. Prices for projects coming on-line from 2020 have fallen to $50 per megawatt-hour in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany.
Meanwhile, states are pushing for offshore wind to make up a significant share of their clean energy goals. New York is planning to procure about 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, and Massachusetts last year mandated that utilities Eversource, National Grid and Unitil must procure 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2027.
In theory, Cape Wind could have been helped by these industry-wide changes. But the location was the biggest problem for the developer.
“The fate of the Cape Wind project was unfortunate for its development team, but the lessons learned following the years-long legal struggles highlighted the criticality of thoughtful offshore zoning practices to ensure the success of future projects,” noted Dan Shreve, partner at MAKE Consulting. The project’s most vocal opponents included wealthy owners of property on the shoreline within sight of the proposed wind farm, as well as groups concerned about threats to the local fishing and tourism industries.
Things are changing, however. “Over the past two years, the United States offshore wind energy market has undergone a revival,” Shreve said. “Block Island put steel in the water, taking the critical first steps in a nascent industry and demonstrating the feasibility of East Coast offshore wind projects. Seasoned offshore wind developers from the European Union providing are engaged, providing increased credibility to the market’s long-term prospects.”
Offshore wind is still much more expensive than its onshore variant, but costs are coming down quickly in auctions around the world.
MAKE is forecasting demand for 2.3 gigawatts of offshore wind in the U.S. through 2026 -- although that figure does not take into account the proposed changes in the U.S. Senate tax bill that could undercut tax financing viability for certain projects.