Drought. Flooding. Extreme rain. Warmer winters. Less snowpack. The impacts of climate change have already touched the northeastern corner of the United States, just as they are being felt in different ways across the country and planet.
With world leaders having departed COP26, a massive international conference in Glasgow that set goals for tackling this global problem, at least some in the region have set their sights on the hazy horizon out at sea.
Their hope? That offshore wind — a budding industry in this part of the world — will transform the power supply, moving the needle in a transition away from fossil fuels and toward sources of energy that don’t emit carbon dioxide.
Decisions from COP26 could impact the future of the offshore wind industry in this part of the world, according to Susannah Hatch, the clean energy coalition director at the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
“Some decisions there would really help spur the industry and renewable energy writ large,” she said, like investment and innovation in renewable energy that could drive down costs both in New England and around the world.
Hatch’s work has focused on offshore wind — which she calls a critical clean energy solution in the Northeast given the geography (the proximity to the Gulf of Maine) and energy demands (high in the winter, at a time when the wind usually blows). Even so, she said wind is just one piece of the puzzle, and that the international conversation needs to take a bigger, systemic focus.
That could mean doing away the fossil fuel industry entirely, which is what a few leaders who are part of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance pushed for at COP26, according to reporting by Politico. Other proposals out of COP26 — like pledges to reach net-zero emissions, halt deforestation, and reduce methane emissions — have drawn skepticism; the Climate Action Tracker released a report on Tuesday showing that even with 2030 pledges made at COP26, the world is on track to warm 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, exceeding the commonly cited 1.5-degree cutoff to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
“It is clear there is a massive credibility, action, and commitment gap that casts a long and dark shadow of doubt over the net-zero goals put forward by more than 140 countries, covering 90 percent of global emissions,” according to a Tuesday briefing by the Climate Action Tracker.
Some energy experts in the state agree with Hatch that singling out one technology isn’t the right approach when it comes to combating climate change. Sam Evans-Brown, the executive director of the nonprofit Clean Energy New Hampshire, is among them.
“Why don’t we just say that what we want is clean energy?” he said, adding: “Personally, I think that’s a better way to go than picking a single technology and then going and saying we want ‘X’ amount of this technology.”
At a state level, a mandate is the policy lever to implement the kind of plan Evans-Brown is talking about. Other states in the region have made that kind of commitment to purchasing either clean energy in general or energy from offshore wind specifically.
“Other states are not waiting,” said Michael Behrmann, an offshore wind consultant in Dover.
But when it comes to policy, mandates for clean energy procurement have been a non-starter in New Hampshire, which has left at least some in the region scratching their heads. Hatch called New Hampshire an enigma when it comes to offshore wind.
On one hand, she said, “there’s a lot of enthusiasm in the state for offshore wind, recognition that it could be a real boon for the New Hampshire economy.” And there have been assessments and studies — like a $250,000 contract to look at the impact of offshore wind. “But we haven’t seen all that much in terms of action to push procurements of offshore wind, which is how states are pursuing bringing the energy to their states up and down the East Coast,” Hatch said.
Some who are watching offshore wind closely in the state have been frustrated by what they see as New Hampshire dragging its feet. They see a closing window of opportunity and fear the state is going to miss out on the economic benefit and potential of new job creation that comes with a brand-new industry in the state.
“We have to be involved in the conversations, and out there meeting with manufacturers, and going to the conferences where they meet and saying, ‘Here’s what New Hampshire has to offer,” Behrmann said.
And that was actually his job. He had those conversations on behalf of the state through a role as director for offshore wind industry development, which was scuttled from the Bureau of Economic Affairs into the newly created Department of Energy. Behrmann quit in August.
“That does not appear to be where the governor’s staff is looking to have an impact,” he said.
The post has been empty since he left. “They are not moving quickly,” Evans-Brown said of the Office of Offshore Wind. “That’s the short version of what’s going on over there.”
The department expects to fill the position “in the coming months,” according to Chris Ellms, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Energy. Mark Sanborn, deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, has been helping lead New Hampshire’s executive branch efforts.
Clean energy advocates are worried about what inaction now could cost down the road in job creation and manufacturing that the state could miss out on.
Evans-Brown pointed to other states that are already upgrading their infrastructure. “New Jersey has invested over $200 million. Massachusetts has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in several separate ports. Connecticut is doing the same in New London,” he said.
“I want to prod New Hampshire decision-makers. We’ve been talking about offshore wind now for a couple of years, but it’s like, you gotta go guys. If you want to take part, the time is now,” he said. He puts the ever-closing window of opportunity for the state to invest in upgrades at around two years.
At least one person in the State House has been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to get legislation through that would create a mandate for the state to require utilities to purchase energy from offshore wind. Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, has made it a major focus, sponsoring a bill last session that would’ve required utilities to procure energy from offshore wind. Senate Bill 151 passed the Senate in a 23-1 bipartisan vote but was ultimately sent to interim study, essentially ending hopes of it becoming law.
This session, Watters has a new legislative proposal he’s putting forward with the goal of getting offshore wind off the ground in New Hampshire. One bill aims to get New Hampshire a seat at the table when it comes to regulating offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine.
Although offshore wind projects would be in federal waters, more than three miles offshore, “we get to have a say over it,” said Watters. That bill would amend RSA 362-H:2, which deals with purchase power agreements and the RSA on the coastal fund, adding language that specifically references the development of offshore wind energy in the Gulf of Maine that could impact New Hampshire’s coastal region.
He called the bill a powerful tool for protecting New Hampshire fisheries and interests, and said it contains everything but the mandate. Another bill Watters is proposing would establish criteria for power purchase agreements from offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine.
Asked if removing the mandate was a big concession, Watters said: “Other states aren’t holding back, and they’re getting the advantages of it.”
“My bills,” Watters said, “reflect the political realities in the state.”