What Does it Take to Bring Offshore Wind to Massachusetts?
Offshore wind could bring cheap power to Massachusetts and help turn the state into a green tech hub. But before the turbines start turning, a variety of stakeholders, including the state’s iconic fishing industry, need to be brought on board. Elizabeth Turnbull Henry ’11, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, talked to Yale Insights about making the argument that economic development goes hand in hand with environmental sustainability.
The U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment warned in November that, without significant reduction of greenhouse gas emission, climate impacts will shrink the size of the American economy by 10% by the end of the century.
For coastal areas, including the most populous parts of Massachusetts, the local costs of inaction could be greater. Elizabeth Turnbull Henry ’11, a joint-degree graduate of Yale SOM and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, serves as president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. She says that sea level rise represents an “almost existential threat” for the state, but she also sees an opportunity. “The future of our economy could literally be designing and exporting climate solutions.”
Massachusetts has been exploring offshore wind for nearly two decades. Cape Wind, proposed in 2001, managed to unite Kennedys and Kochs in opposition. Since then, wind technology has made great strides, and the economic impacts of delaying climate change mitigation have become clearer. A new project, Vineyard Wind, aims to start construction in 2019, supported by a contract from the state for procurement of 800 megawatts of power. Vineyard Wind and several competitors have leased additional offshore sites with the expectation that Massachusetts aims to expand wind energy procurement to 3200 megawatts. But the project has contended with objections from the fishing industry, which will need to reroute around the turbines, and Cape Cod residents concerned about the location of a high-voltage cable.
Turnbull talked with Yale Insights about the importance of demonstrating the link between a healthy environment and a vibrant economy and the complex process of building consensus for a project with a variety of stakeholders.
Q: What is the Environmental League of Massachusetts? What drew you to the organization?
The Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM) is a 120-year-old environmental advocacy organization. It has been at the intersection of policy and politics on Beacon Hill since 1898. I was drawn to the opportunity because Massachusetts has the potential to be a world leader in climate policy—and because ELM has the reputation and legacy of being a convener that brings environmental and business groups together.
State governments are labs for democracy and for policy innovation; Massachusetts is a great lab. I think we can do for environmental policy what we have done for marriage equality and single-payer healthcare: design policy prototypes that become more broadly implemented elsewhere.
Too often, it seems that we’re presented with a false choice: environmental sustainability or economic vitality. I think smart environmental policy drives economic prosperity. That isn’t to say there aren’t difficult tradeoffs in specific instances, but if we don’t boldly address climate change and put environmental quality at the heart of our policymaking and planning, we undermine our own economic prosperity in the long run.
To my knowledge, I’m the first MBA to lead the organization. I came from Adidas, where I spent seven years in their climate and energy program. I’m here to make the business case that our economic and environmental future are mutually reinforcing, and that markets and incentives can help solve climate change.
Q: To what degree can markets solve environmental problems?
There are people who feel, perhaps rightfully, that capitalism in 2019 has left a lot of people out. For some, the mistrust extends to markets in general. Markets aren’t going to work universally to address every problem, but when well designed, they can create elegant and powerful positive feedback loops.
For example: pricing carbon. There are different ways to do it, but we’ve seen either cap-and-trade or fee-and-dividend models reduce carbon pollution and create funds that can be reinvested in initiatives that further drive down emissions for the benefit of everyone.
“There is no reason why those who want to create the batteries and wind turbines of the future shouldn’t come to Massachusetts to do it.”
A strong economy and a strong environment go hand in hand in fundamental ways. When the economy is thriving, people have more funds to invest in innovation and clean tech, in advocacy, and in efforts at the frontier of addressing environmental issues. As those investments pay off, as the air gets cleaner and water gets cleaner, the burdens on public health fall, people become healthier and more productive, and that fuels a virtuous cycle.
Massachusetts has one of the strongest economies of any state in the U.S. It is no coincidence that we also have some of the most enlightened environmental attitudes.
Q: The state is also facing challenges related to climate change. Does that create concern about the future?
I am acutely aware of what is at stake. Massachusetts has over 1,500 miles of coastline. I don’t know what percentage of our overall economic assets are within seven feet of today’s mean high tide, but it’s a whole lot—including much of Boston and Cambridge. We face an almost existential threat.
But while we have a lot to lose, we also have a lot to gain from creative problem solving. We have an incredible legacy in innovation. Massachusetts is currently one of the best places in the world to start and grow a biotech company. We have the potential to do for cleantech what we did for biotech. The future of our economy could be designing and exporting climate solutions.
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