Posted on March 6, 2023
The whaling industry put New Bedford on the map long ago by bringing the city commercial success, but in this day and age the focus has turned to offshore wind, in combination with the fishing industry as a way to drive New Bedford’s economy.
Civic and business leaders are joining Mayor Jon Mitchell in asking that investment in offshore wind be made a priority in Gov. Maura Healey’s statewide economic development plan as New Bedford strives to be a leader in both the offshore wind and fishing industries.
“We’ve been committed to the proposition that the two industries can coexist successfully, but we also know that it has taken a lot of work and will continue to take an awful lot of work,” he said. “We’re convinced that it’s in the interests of our city that we preserve our leading role as America’s leading fishing port and that we also lead on offshore wind.”
In a letter to Healey and legislators from committees focusing on climate and jobs, Mitchell recommends policies and approaches to strengthen the state’s ability to compete for investment the offshore wind industry with other states further ahead.
Economic development a priority in New Bedford
Mitchell said while former Gov. Charlie Baker and other state policymakers in Boston focused on soliciting offshore wind contracts with climate mitigation as a priority, in Greater New Bedford the priority is economic development.
“It’s an unusual opportunity for a city like ours, one that is not a part of the major metro, to create the jobs that would come with it,” he said. “Like lots of older industrial cities in the Northeast and the Midwest, you have to seize opportunity, and it’s an opportunity to really be competitive.”
While other states have “outcompeted” Massachusetts, he said the wind industry will likely make its major investment decisions for its U.S. operations relatively soon, there’s still time to catch up.
A scoring system for economic benefits of offshore wind
Some 17 East Coast projects are now under active permitting review.
Mitchell said the solicitation process for the selection of developers by the state’s utilities should fairly weigh economic benefits in the determination.
“What I’ve long argued is that there should be a scoring process for solicitations with a number assigned to economic benefits because that’s what every other state has done down the East Coast, and they have seen investment go their way as a result,” he said. “That’s why there are more factories being built in New York and New Jersey.”
Mitchell said he has had some good conversations with the Healey administration focusing on investment commitments since submitting the letter Dec. 22.
He said New Bedford has attracted a number of companies already, with investment in the Foss Terminal a major private investment, and there’s more up for grabs. He said attracting the kind of investment to New Bedford that creates good jobs is a key to the city’s success.
Why offshore wind is doing business in New Bedford
Mitchell said there are two main reasons why the offshore wind industry is going to do business in New Bedford. One is its geographic proximity as the closest port to the largest cluster of established wind industry areas on the East Coast.
The other is that New Bedford has a fully developed and highly functioning port economy that is primarily connected to the fishing industry.
“What that means for our port is that the arrival of offshore wind has as a result of that connection already resulted in opportunities for businesses that have historically served only the commercial fishing industry,” he said, including fueling companies, metal fabricators and owners of provision vessels.
Port of New Bedford need for vessel management plan
New Bedford’s efforts to be the leader of both the fishing and offshore wind industries are aimed at avoiding, or at least mitigating, conflicts between the two. As much as there are points of conflict between the two industries, Mitchell said there are also points of synergy and potential synergy.
“My job is to ensure that we continue to lead in fishing but also to be a leader in offshore wind and do both really well,” he said. “To ensure that the fishing industry is protected, we have to really focus on where the points of conflict are.”
He said there are congestion issues in the port that have to be managed by having an effective vessel management plan in place and executing that plan as well as making more space for everybody.
He said there is more port infrastructure being built right now in the Port of New Bedford than there has been since New Bedford was the capital of the whaling industry in the 19th century, and that’s why there have been hundreds of millions of dollars shepherded to the port over the last several years.
In New Bedford, there is approximately $80 million worth of port facilities that are permitted and awaiting funding before construction can begin.
While confident about being able to manage points of conflict in the harbor, there are three points of conflict outside the port.
Navigational safety amid offshore wind turbines
One is navigational safety. Commercial fishermen have the highest occupational mortality rate in the U.S., and he said no one in New Bedford needs to be reminded that commercial fishing is a dangerous job.
“The prospect of having immovable objects in the way is something that has to be taken seriously, so that’s why we’ve worked very hard over the years with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to ensure that there is adequate spacing and appropriate alignment of wind turbines in the wind energy areas,” he said.
They are going to be spaced about a mile apart, which is farther apart than wind turbines are spaced in Europe, and they’re also aligned east to west, which is a change in practice from what has been historically done in Europe.
Mitchell said it took some time to get the wind developers to understand the needs of the fishing industry in New Bedford because the fishing industry in Northern Europe, where offshore wind has been maturing for 30 years, is very different. It’s much larger, more multifaceted and more complex, he said.
Locating wind farms in ‘least disruptive’ areas for fishing industry
He said taking an approach such as cutting checks for fishermen who have been displaced due to the construction or operation of wind farms isn’t ethical or desirable in the Northeast. Here, he said, it’s about locating wind farms where they are least disruptive.
He said the second point of conflict is direct loss of economic opportunity if wind turbines are placed in areas where fishermen have fished and are likely to continue to fish. If that were the case, they could potentially be blocked from harvesting in those areas.
He said the siting decisions that BOEM has made have been very important, and New Bedford has been actively engaged in those discussions from the start. The most sensitive area for New Bedford has been the New York Bight wind lease area.
He said it’s in this triangular area of the ocean that generally extends northeasterly from New Jersey to Long Island where they have really fought hard to limit the places where wind energy would be established.
“I think at the end of the day, what the federal government landed on was far better than where we started out, and I think that the work that we did enable us to preserve some really important scalloping grounds there in the New York Bight,” he said.
Mitchell said the third conflict is the potential encroachment on habitats for scallops, cod and other groundfish near wind energy areas and the one that requires the most study of all by the federal government.
The focus on understanding where fish spawn while ensuring that the development, construction and operation of the wind projects don’t encroach on them will prove to be very important, and there will be no convenient answers until certain wind farms have been built and studied, he said.
“This is an area where we’ve done a lot of work advocating for research dollars for these very purposes with the research dollars ideally from the lease sales themselves,” he said. “We’d like to see Congress set up a mechanism whereby the proceeds of lease deals go directly to research on the effects of offshore wind.”
Another request is that if wind energy areas are cited, every conceivable step should be taken to avoid what might be an active fish habitat.
Letter recommends innovation center support
One of the recommended policies and approaches centered on support for industry innovation by advancing the development of a Massachusetts Marine and Energy Innovation Center in New Bedford as part of the city’s economic development strategy to build on its assets.
The city has been working with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center along with the New Bedford Ocean Cluster and New Bedford Port Authority on the concept of a Massachusetts Marine and Energy Innovation Center on the central waterfront.
“There’s nowhere else New Bedford has advantages than on the waterfront, so the idea there is to capitalize on this advantage by building out infrastructure for traditional industries and allow that to attract capital, he said.
“As more institutional planners, higher education, the state and others continue to do work here, there are opportunities for new business formation, so having a business accelerator here could be a big plus for the region.”
A business accelerator provides early-stage companies with funding, access to expert advisers, peer mentorship and practical support.
It’s a concept that’s been discussed for the past year and a half. A preliminary study by the Clean Energy Center is underway and may be ready in the next couple of months.
“We want New Bedford to be a place that convenes maritime industries — that means fishing, offshore wind and others — and we don’t even have New English Fisheries Management Committee meetings here even though we’re the biggest fishing port in the U.S.,” he said. “We need to bring fishing and offshore wind industries together.”
Another of the recommendations meant to ensure that Massachusetts has the best trained offshore wind industry workforce is grant support for Bristol Community College’s National Offshore Wind Institute and other training programs.
He said without a ready workforce, the jobs will go elsewhere.