Cape Wind, which began more than a decade ago as the nation’s first offshore wind farm and has since been enmeshed in legal battles, political wrangling and untold miles of red tape, is inching closer to the day when 130 wind turbines will be in operation on Horseshoe Shoal in Vineyard Sound.
The project’s progress is tangible: out on the water, two barges have been in operation, performing geological tests on the ocean bed in preparation for the turbines.
Cape Wind first applied for a permit in November 2001. Since then, it has been undergoing a lengthy permitting process at the state and local level. Cape Wind received its final permit in August when the Federal Aviation Administration determined that the project would not pose a hazard to aviation.
It also has been the subject of repeated lawsuits, including from a group forcefully opposed to the project, the Alliance for Nantucket Sound. Opponents have cited concerns about property rights and private gain in public waters, and the impact to ocean life, migrating birds, tourism and fishermen.
The proposed wind farm would be situated in 24 square miles on Nantucket Sound, with the three-blade wind turbines measuring 440 feet tall at the tip of the topmost blade. Transmission lines would connect to a mainland grid.
The turbines will be designed for 25 years, after which they could be re-licensed and extended, Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said. If not, they will be decommissioned and removed.
The project also has been political: as Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney was opposed to the project. In 2010, secretary of the interior Ken Salazar approved the project.
More locally, Cong. William Keating and Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren support the project, while Mr. Keating’s challenger, Christopher Sheldon, and Sen. Scott Brown are opposed to Cape Wind.
Regardless, about an hour away from Falmouth Harbor by boat, two weeks ago two barges were engaged in environmental testing. The work is being done by Fugro, a Dutch-based engineering and geoscience consulting firm.
With Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and Chappaquiddick visible to the east, a yellow barge was performing a seabed cone penetration test during a media trip to Horseshoe Shoal. On the barge, a cone was lowered about 50 to 60 feet into the sea floor at a controlled rate, Fugro vice president Tom McNeilan said.
A number of sensors are on the cone, he said, which will indicate the sea floor’s resistance. This helps to determine the sea floor’s properties, with this information used to design wind turbine foundations.
“The resistance tell us a lot about the engineering properties of the soil,” Mr. McNeilan said. “It’s the fundamental most important piece of data relative to the design of the foundations for any marine project,” he said.
The barge is testing for every location where there will be a turbine, he said, at water depths between 25 and 30 feet.
The data will then be used to construct the bases of the wind turbines in the sea floor.
Turbine foundations will be about 80 feet below the sea floor, Cape Wind project manager Rachel Pachter said, with the driven steel monopiles made of hollow steel and five metres in diameter.
On the way to the second barge, a 200-foot tall wind turbine was visible in the distance. This is a scientific data tower installed in 2002, Mr. Rodgers said, which has provided data, recording an average wind speed of 19.5 miles per hour at the altitude of the rotors.
“It tends to be windy out here because of the sea breeze affect,” he said, as wind is created from the interaction between land and cooler water. “That’s something sailors know.”
The second stop was a red drilling barge pinned to the sea floor, looking like a four-poster bed sitting on the surface of the water. The four legs were pushed into the sea floor hydraulically, Mr. McNeilan said, and the positioning above the water offers more stability.
Crew boats go back and forth every 12 hours for shift changes, with the typical barge crews ranging between six and eight people, all required to have offshore survival training. Mr. McNeilan pointed out someone named Kevin carrying around a sample tube.
At this barge, a specialized sampling system was underway, where a drill takes samples of the sea floor “that you can physically look at and analyze and evaluate,” Mr. McNeilan said.
While tests on the first barge determine how the soil behaves, the second barge’s work shows the consistency of the soil: primarily sand and layers of clay, but also glacial materials dating before the last ice age and outwash materials.
“The site’s a very interesting site geologically,” Mr. McNeilan said.
Between the data from the two barges, “you really have a good set of information you can use,” Ms. Pachter said. Samples are sent back to the lab in Houston and analyzed.
The work being done on the barges is the conclusion of four phases of field work, Ms. Pachter said, starting with a marine survey to map the sea floor acoustically. The second phase was the sediment sampling of the upper part of the sea floor. The cone penetration test, completed at the end of September, was phase three, and the fourth phase, the testing from the “jack-up” barge, started in mid-September and is expected to continue for three more weeks.
Mr. McNeilan said Fugro largely does work in marine energy and has been part of the development of European offshore wind energy. Similar barge testing work has been done in Turkey, Mozambique, and throughout Europe, from Scotland to Denmark.
For the Cape Wind project, workers are subcontracted from the Cape and the New England area, he said.
“Offshore wind as an industry has a tremendous opportunity for economic development in the U.S.,” he said, adding that it diversifies the country’s “energy portfolio.”
“So Fugro really is excited to be part
of this first U.S. commercial offshore wind farm. We believe bringing a lot of our experience in Europe to this site is useful, some of our people aboard those vessels have worked over in Europe,” he said.
“We’re pleased to be part of this pioneering effort,” Mr. McNeilan said as the boat headed back to Falmouth. “Being part of a pioneering effort is challenging, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
While this preliminary geological testing work is underway, it is now several years past the time when Cape Wind thought the wind farm would be up and running. Mr. Rodgers told the Gazette this week that he recently saw a document calling for construction in 2005.
“That was optimistic,” he said.
But he sees an end in sight. “We are complete now with the permitting phase, we have the federal and state permits,” Mr. Rodgers said.
Cape Wind is now working with Barclay Capital on financing and raising capital, he said, though he declined to comment on how much progress has been made or what the target number is.
Time-wise, Cape Wind aims to complete financing by mid-2013, he said, and hopes to begin cable work in 2013 and ocean construction in 2014.
Start to finish, construction would take two and a half years, Mr. Rodgers said.
The organization does not yet have a contractor for the construction phase, he said, and will do that in the coming months.
He also said the project can begin even if there is pending litigation.
“Our lawyers have looked at this closely,” he said. He also said the opponents to the project are challenging “what is the most complete review of any energy project in the history of the Northeast U.S.”
In the end, Mr. Rodgers called the years-long scrutiny of the project a good thing.
“In what ended up being a 10-year-review, there certainly weren’t any short cuts,” he said.
“We are proud of the fact that by developing the first project in the U.S. . . . the federal government has developed regulatory guidelines and process for review and approving and monitoring offshore wind farms.
“This means a more predictable and certain path for future projects.”