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Seeing opportunity in offshore wind, advocates urge New Hampshire: Don't blow it

The five turbines of America's first offshore wind farm, owned by the Danish company, Orsted, stand off the coast of Block Island, R.I., Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. Hundreds of offshore wind developers and experts gathered in Rhode Island to talk about the future of clean energy— how to grow the offshore wind industry and address shared challenges. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/AP
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AP
The five turbines of America's first offshore wind farm, owned by the Danish company, Orsted, stand off the coast of Block Island, R.I., Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. Hundreds of offshore wind developers and experts gathered in Rhode Island to talk about the future of clean energy— how to grow the offshore wind industry and address shared challenges. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Offshore wind power is moving closer to becoming a reality in New England. In late April, federal officials proposed the first-ever auction for leasing areas in the Gulf of Maine, which could host enough turbines to power 5 million homes.

New Hampshire has long been alone in its approach to the climate-friendly power source, staying away from the tactics neighboring states have used to encourage developments. But with the industry poised to move forward, a group of offshore wind advocates are urging New Hampshire to play a bigger role.

At a press conference in Concord on Thursday, Rob Werner, with the League of Conservation Voters, said offshore wind seems like the best chance at decarbonizing the region, moving away from the fossil fuels that are driving climate change.

“This is an unparalleled opportunity for the state of New Hampshire, both in terms of protecting our environment, creating economic opportunity for our communities, and creating jobs for our citizens,” he said. “But we can only do that if we make the right policy decisions.”

Werner said news of the federal government’s offshore wind auction proposal indicates that this kind of development is moving from “theoretical to real,” after years of back-and-forth.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the announcement came after conversations between people representing lots of different perspectives on the project: federal, state and local governments, Indigenous tribes and people who use the ocean, like those who work in the fishing industry. A comment period on the proposed lease areas is open until July 1, and the sales are expected to happen in October 2024.

“This is really the end of the beginning. So there's a long, long, long path ahead,” said Ted Diers, with New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services.

People should still expect more studies, public comments, and data collection before turbines are in the water, he said. But the proposed areas for the wind farms reflect comments made by people in New Hampshire, particularly the fishing industry, who asked for specific places in the ocean to be avoided.

Now, he said, New Hampshire’s focus is on how offshore wind development might affect the state through things like the placement of transmission cables, or the opportunity for new workforce development programs.

“We’re not necessarily proponents of offshore wind," he said. "We’ve been making sure that if offshore wind progresses, New Hampshire is certainly not left behind in all of this, and making sure that we aren’t impacted in undue ways."

Other states in New England have attempted to spur investment in offshore wind through procurements, mandating utilities to enter into long-term contracts with offshore wind generators.

New Hampshire is the only state in the region without statutory goals for reducing the emissions that cause climate change, and the only coastal state in the region without targets or mandates for how much offshore wind power to procure.

Instead, the state has taken what its energy officials describe as a “market-based approach” to ensure there is enough cost-effective reliable energy on the grid.

“We want energy markets to drive our resource selection instead of government mandates,” said Chris Ellms, the deputy commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Energy. “Our focus is that if we can help our neighbors achieve [their] goals while still advocating for our interests, whether it is protecting against things that would go contrary to our interests or to seize opportunities to benefit us, that's great.”

Business leaders and lawmakers at Thursday’s press conference called on the state to take a more active approach. They said New Hampshire needs to show the industries that support offshore wind, like manufacturers who supply the parts to build wind farms, that it is “open for business.”

Jim Andrews is the president of Granite Shore Power, which recently announced plans to transition New England’s two remaining coal-fired power plants to “renewable energy parks.”

During Thursday’s event, he said Granite Shore Power plans to transition Schiller Station, a plant in Portsmouth that previously burned coal, to a battery storage facility that would provide power during times of peak demand and store energy from offshore wind farms.

New Hampshire is well-suited to take advantage of its proximity to the potential sites for offshore wind, he said, but the state needs to do more to invite investments.

“If New Hampshire is going to benefit from not only the decarbonization efforts, but also the economic growth possibilities, it is imperative that the capital be invested directly in New Hampshire to support these projects,” he said. “Frankly, progress has been slow to almost non-existent in this regard.”

Andrews urged the state to move quickly, instead of waiting for the Gulf of Maine leases to be sold.

“Although opportunities may now seem abundant, they are finite,” he said.

Sen. David Watters, a Democrat from Dover who chairs the New Hampshire Commission on Offshore Wind and Port Development, said he sees bipartisan support for this growing industry. But he said there’s more work to do.

“We cannot let the jobs, developer investments, potential tax benefits and lower cost energy just flow around us to other New England states, as I fear it will if we don't take more aggressive leadership,” he said.

Watters said New Hampshire could partner with other states like Massachusetts to procure wind energy, and increase participation in planning grid upgrades needed to carry additional power inland. He also urged partnerships with labor unions and educators to develop a workforce for offshore wind developments.

Watters noted efforts in the State House currently moving forward to streamline the process for choosing sites for energy infrastructure, which he said could entice the wind industry to look to New Hampshire. And, he said, the state should ensure benefits from the development of wind power go to lower-income communities and those affected by past pollution.

“There are New Hampshire ways to do this,” he said. “Offshore wind will provide diversification and resilience.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.