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The Federal Government Just Sold Hundreds of Square Miles To Offshore Wind Developers

Located off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, the area could become the largest source of offshore wind power in the nation, supplying 1.4 million homes with electricity.
Image via AP/Peter Dejong

The United States is one of the most energy-hungry countries in the world. Yet, in an era of increasing pressure to reduce emissions from fossil fuel burning, only nine percent of the nation's energy is generated by renewable sources. That puts the US far behind countries like Germany, which produces 27 percent of its electricity with green sources, and Denmark, where the government aims to produce all of its power from renewables by mid-century.


In an effort to hasten the pace of clean energy generation, the federal government conducted its largest ever sale of leases dedicated to offshore wind. Located about 14 miles off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, the federal parcels could provide electricity to 1.4 million homes, according to the US Department of Energy.

If developed, the area could become the nation's first offshore wind project and help establish an energy sector that's been plagued by opposition from coastal communities.

"We are working hard to set up an offshore wind industry in the United States," Abigail Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), said.

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Half of the 1,100 square miles put up for auction by the BOEM were sold for a combined take of $448,151 — magnitudes less than the agency's three other wind auctions, all of which generated millions of dollars from smaller land areas. About 125 square miles off the coast of Maryland sold for $8.7 million in 2014, while two 2013 auctions in Virginia and Rhode Island resulted in sales of $1.6 million and $3.8 million, respectively.

The Massachusetts plots are in deeper water than the three previous offshore areas, Hopper said, which makes development more technologically challenging and drove down the price. Individual state financing regulations can also change the price companies are willing to pay.


The lease sales begin a long process of planning and review that could take more than six years before any construction begins, a BOEM spokesperson told VICE News.

"I think it's fantastic, and a great move in the right direction," Marissa Knodel, a climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth, told VICE News. "We need more offshore renewable energy development, not fossil fuel development. This stands in really stark contrast to the announcement that the administration made to open up the Atlantic to offshore drilling for the first time ever."

'There's no absolutely perfect energy source.'

On Tuesday, the Department of the Interior released a draft of its proposal to lease 14 offshore areas for oil and gas drilling, including along the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic.

"The administration has a very contradictory energy policy," Knodel told VICE News.

On one hand, the Obama administration has called for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in renewable energy production. But, on the other hand, as part of its "all of the above" energy strategy, it has promoted oil and gas development, which has catapulted the US to the top of the list of all oil and gas producers in the world.

Though wind power is generally hailed as an environmental success over fossil fuels, attempts to construct wind turbins are sometimes met with opposition from people living near the sites. A plan to construct 130 wind turbines in the Nantucket Sound, called the Cape Wind Project, has faced a series of lawsuits from the Cape Cod town of Barnstable, a local nonprofit, and some businesses and residents who say they're worried about the wind farm's potential impacts on fisheries and migratory birds, among other concerns.


Cape Wind Associates bought the lease to the 46 square miles in 2001, before the Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave BOEM regulatory authority over renewable energy development. That meant Cape Wind didn't hold public meetings when choosing an area for development, which BOEM did this time around.

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"I'm sure there's still concerns about the site, but these alternative sites should be superior to what Cape Wind chose," Audra Parker, president of Save Our Sound, the nonprofit on the suits, told VICE News. "There's a right way of identifying areas for development and a wrong way, and Cape Wind is clearly the wrong way."

In August, the groups opposed to Cape Wind filed an appeal with a federal court in Boston after a district judge threw out their suit in May.

"There's no absolutely perfect energy source," Knodel told VICE News. "They're all going to have some sort of environmental impact. There may be some risks with wind, but very few. The bottom line is we just can't continue to have oil and gas development off of our coasts."

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro