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26 October 2021

What will it take to build the US offshore wind industry?

A US offshore wind pioneer, Vineyard Wind’s Rachel Pachter is in charge of developing Vineyard Wind I, the US’s first commercial-scale offshore wind project. Energy Monitor sat down to talk to her.

By Justin Gerdes

Rachel Pachter has had a front row seat to witness the birth and growing pains of the US offshore wind industry. Early in her career, Pachter worked on the ill-fated Cape Wind, an offshore wind farm proposed near the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, which gestated for more than a decade before its developers abandoned the project in 2017. Today, Pachter leads the development team for the company aiming to do what Cape Wind’s backers could not: build the US’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm.

Pachter is chief development officer for the offshore wind company Vineyard Wind, a 50-50 joint venture between Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables. On 11 May 2021, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal offshore energy regulator, approved Vineyard Wind’s first project, Vineyard Wind I, an 800MW offshore wind farm to be located 15 miles south of the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

The US is not short on ambition when it comes to offshore wind energy. The Biden-Harris administration set a goal in March to build 30,000MW of offshore wind capacity by 2030. So far, just two small pilot projects with a combined 42MW of capacity are in operation. Vineyard Wind I will be the first project built in the US that rivals the largest projects in Europe.

US offshore wind leader Rachel Pachter
Vineyard Wind chief development officer Rachel Pachter. (Photo courtesy of Vineyard Wind)

In conversation with Energy Monitor, Pachter describes what it will take to build out the US offshore wind industry, including developing a local supply chain, overcoming regulatory hurdles and connecting offshore projects to the onshore power grid.

Vineyard Wind I was the first commercial-scale project in the US to reach financial close. When do you break ground?

We are starting with the onshore construction now, which is important to make sure the grid is ready for the project to plug in. We will start with the export cable in 2022. The bulk of the remaining foundations and turbines will be installed by 2023, which is when we will start to see power to the grid.

Are you finding it difficult to build out the local supply chain or meet local content requirements?

‘Difficult’ is probably not the right word. We view Vineyard Wind I, our first project, as the first step, and things like local content, local labour will increase as each project happens. We have been building partnerships for as many years as we have been working on this project. There are plenty of challenges, but there is also a lot of work under way to meet those challenges.

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We work hard to define ‘local’ because in some cases we are talking about the US versus Massachusetts versus, in our case, south-eastern Massachusetts versus New Bedford. We do not have the tier-1 equipment here, but we are connecting the tier-1 suppliers [companies that supply parts directly to original equipment manufacturers] with as many folks as we can locally. Our initiative for the first project is ‘Look Local First’. We have a great partnership with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which has been building out databases of folks that want to work on these projects. We are starting from a good footing.

Vineyard Wind recently signed a project labour agreement (PLA) to use union workers. Will you be able to find enough unionised workers?

We have just signed the PLA, but we have been working on this for three years. Those conversations are not just a negotiation over costs. It is really about who is available, how and what is needed to make them able to work on the project.

We fully expect to meet the PLA commitments. We are a part of making sure that happens, as are our suppliers like GE. Everybody is engaged in making that come to fruition. We have set goals we think we can meet but they are goals that stretch us in a way that is good for the project, and for the industry.

There were significant delays as you waited on approvals from the BOEM during the Trump administration. What did the delays mean for Vineyard Wind as a company?

Delay is always a problem, for any development. We were contracted and ready to go. We had a date on the calendar from the BOEM for when we would see a decision. I am not sure how many people fully appreciate the long lead time of all the components we need to build the project. You need manufacturing to start, and that costs money.

A lot of the things that happen before we do the offshore construction are what drive our schedules and critical tasks. We had the majority of tier-1 contracts under our belt, so those had to be redone – all of them. Some have said that for the engineering and project construction team the project died and they started over. On the development side, which is the team that I lead, we forged ahead.

You asked what it means for us as a company, and that is sort of the second tier because that is where regulatory certainty always comes up. If you were at the recent International Partnering Forum, I am sure you heard that term more times than you can count because that is the driving force behind investments. We had a deadline, we were going to get done and then the deadline got moved out. That is obviously always a challenge for the team.

Who should be responsible for building offshore wind transmission infrastructure? Should the federal government get more involved in planning a 'hub-and-spoke' network on the East Coast?

In the short term, you have projects like Vineyard Wind I – and a lot of the projects just behind it – that are doing it on their own, and that is the right solution for these first projects. But there is a general understanding that delivering 30GW in less than ten years – which is the Biden administration goal – needs a wider solution because there are not enough transmission plug-in points on the coast to take in that amount of power.

All parties need to be at the table to solve it. You need the federal government, you need the ISOs [Independent System Operators], you need the developers. We just need to bring everyone together and figure out who takes the lead on what.

What would you like to see from the BOEM or the Department of the Interior to make the next offshore wind projects easier to approve and build?

The BOEM needs more staff to handle the amount of projects they are working on. Our request is ‘Please move faster’ or ‘Please make sure you can stay on pace at the very least, with your review times’, which are now at two years. Obviously, we would love to see that cut down, but at the very least they need to keep to that schedule.

We need all of government working together towards this goal. As well as the Department of Interior, we have interactions with the Commerce Department, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency. They are taking what they would call an 'all-of-government' approach.

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There are issues and small things Vineyard Wind I went through that are not a huge deal and not very well known, but that required figuring out when you are dealing with more than two dozen regulatory structures. When the regulations conflict, for example. How do you decide what to do? Getting all that done and under our belt, so projects know what to submit and how long it will take to get a decision, took a lot of learning. That is a long way of saying streamlining would be great.

I am sure there are many lessons from the last 20 years, from when you started with Cape Wind to today. What would you tell your younger self about what it takes to persevere in the industry?

I learned that I do not mind hard work and I do not mind disagreement. That to me was the key to doing this for 20 years. Obviously, Cape Wind had a lot of controversy and a lot of hard discussions to deal with, but it also had a lot of support. Key for me has also been that the work has always been very interesting. You do not stick out something that is difficult for long unless you find the day-to-day interesting. The overall excitement about the benefit to the place I live, the north-east, and seeing this opportunity, has been such an inspiration.

When I moved to Massachusetts, I thought to myself, ‘We have a resource here – and here is an opportunity to use it’. That is still the same mentality I bring to work with me each day today. This resource is clean, climate change is happening and the port communities need revitalisation.

What advice do you have for young women who want to follow your path into a career in offshore wind?

I am extremely lucky. We have some amazing women on the Vineyard Wind team. Build your network within the company and outside of the company.

One thing I will say about being a woman in the industry is that I feel very comfortable reaching out to other women to ask to connect. They are very responsive. I started doing that only halfway into this journey, and they were cold calls. It has been extremely valuable learning how other people face challenges and knowing people when you are moving through the industry.

Also, do good work. Pick something and try to be an expert in it and do it really well, and look to take the burden off the people you are working for. That will help you shine.

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