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Winds of change

Think of it as Oil Patch version 2.0.

As the nation's nascent offshore wind industry begins revving up, New London and the surrounding region are poised to become front-and-center in the push to bring large-scale offshore renewable energy to the nation.

Roughly 10 big commercial wind projects — some languishing in the pipeline for years — are beginning to catch a tangible updraft. Once turning, colossal turbines rising off southern New England's coast will bring enough power ashore to light millions of homes.

Wind turbine height
Illustration by Scott Ritter/The Day 

In Connecticut, a major overhaul of State Pier in New London is expected to begin this spring. Danish wind developer Ørsted, and its partner, New England's Eversource Energy, will use the revamped pier as a staging area for three big projects in federal waters just east of Block Island, R.I.

And in Washington, the Biden administration says it wants to start a slate of environmental reviews, make cash available to ports and developers, and offer new areas for lease off the coast of New York and New Jersey. The goal is to open the spigot on projects that promise to spur the economy while slashing harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

Indeed, the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management announced Thursday that it will begin an environmental review of Ørsted and Eversource's Revolution Wind, starting the clock on a 30-day public comment period. Revolution Wind, located in federal waters 20 miles south of Rhode Island, would supply 304 megawatts of power to Connecticut and 400 MW to the Ocean State.  

The nation's first and only commercial wind farm came online four miles off Block Island in 2016. Its five turbines generate a modest 30 MW of power for the popular tourist destination.

Wind turbine jack-up barge
Illustration by Scott Ritter/The Day

In contrast, Vineyard Wind will erect 62 state-of-the-art General Electric Haliade-X turbines to supply Connecticut with 804 MW of electricity — about 14% of the state's electric supply — when it plugs into the New England electric grid in 2025. Vineyard Wind, which will use port facilities in Bridgeport, is a project of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables.

"Things are going to start happening fast," says Sylvain De Guise, who runs the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton. He likens the recent developments to the coming of spring: "A couple of buds, next thing you see are some flowers and trees blooming. When it starts happening, it happens pretty fast."

To be sure, the projects face some headwinds. Commerical fishermen say wind farms threaten their livelihoods. The State Pier project is a target of critics who cite poor oversight, cost overruns and a lack of transparency.

Still, Connecticut has signed two deals to buy electricity generated offshore. And a lot of people see a huge potential for well-paying new jobs.

"It's not for the faint of heart to try to figure out how to do this. But I think the rewards are worth the effort," says David Hardy, a former U.S. Navy submariner who runs Ørsted's North American offshore wind operations.

The Day sifted through hundreds of pages of regulatory filings to take a look at where and how these massive turbines will rise from the sea bed. In the coming months, we'll follow the wind farms' progress and examine their impact on Connecticut consumers, fishermen, workers and communities.

Wind speed map
Illustration by Scott Ritter/The Day 

Meantime, companies like Groton-based ThayerMahan are ready to jump in. ThayerMahan's cadre of young, whiz-kid engineers are developing cutting-edge technology to help the industry monitor offshore waters and the marine mammals living there. The company has already signed on with Revolution Wind, where as many as 100 giant turbines could be turning by 2023.

"We don't mine coal or drill for oil," says Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat. "This is just completely turning that on its head, so that now we're going to be instrumental in terms of developing global energy.

"We're suddenly becoming the new Oil Patch," he says, "even though it's not oil."

Cable cross-section
Illustration by Scott Ritter/The Day

Illustrations by Scott Ritter/The Day. Sources: U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; U.S. Geological Survey; Northeast Ocean Data.org; National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Narrbay.org; ESRI; Ørsted/Eversource; Copenhagen Infrastructure/Avangrid. Illustrations are not drawn to scale; export cable routes are approximate.

This story was updated to refer to carbon dioxide, rather than carbon monoxide.

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