An Interview with Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, Senior Policy Advisor, Ocean Conservancy

Editor’s Note: The seemingly inexhaustible demand for clean electricity as well as plunging costs as the technology matures has allowed the offshore wind market to flourish in Northern Europe.  Now it is expanding to other areas of the world.  A number of new markets are emerging, but perhaps the most promising is the one in the United States, where the first offshore wind turbines have been generating power for more than a year and construction on several others is poised to begin. 

This burgeoning global industry already has impacted the submarine power cable market, taking it to new heights.  Since 2016, offshore wind cabling has taken over from interconnectors as the primary demand driver for submarine power cable.  Nearly 5,000 kilometers of cable were contracted for in 2016 and 2017 and 82% were for offshore wind applications. 

With the market poised to explode in the United States, it is important for the industry to learn from the past so that the deployment of new offshore wind farms goes smoothly.  It has been often said that lessons can be learned from the offshore wind experience in Europe, and that is very true.  Lessons also can be learned, however, from other disciplines in the United States; drawing on the country’s long history of scientific study in general and ocean studies in particular.

SCW recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, Senior Policy Advisor for the Ocean Conservancy and a leader in the field of ocean planning.  We spoke about the importance and availability of good ocean data in the context of offshore wind farm placement and, in particular, how that data can help in the proper routing of submarine cables; thus saving time and money and increasing reliability once the cables are operational. 

SCW: Dr. Whitehouse, please tell us something about your background in ocean data. 

Dr. Whitehouse: I have a long-standing interest in the sub-surface of the ocean.  My Ph.D. is in Benthic Ecology – the study of benthic ecosystems.  I also have experience in evaluating the potential impacts of dredging and dredge material disposal.  My background in the ecology and use of the seafloor means that I am particularly interested in the issues around submarine cables including siting, placement and monitoring.

SCW: What exactly is the connection between ocean planning and the submarine cable component of offshore wind projects? 

Dr. Whitehouse: Let me start with an anecdote about Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Offshore Wind Farm, which of course is the first project in offshore waters in the United States (in Rhode Island waters – my home state).  I have worked with them over the years and they told me many times that the most difficult component of that project was not siting the turbines themselves, but rather siting the cable and deciding where it was going to make landfall.  And, I think as we develop these projects throughout the United States, in both state and federal waters, we need to be aware upfront just how important the siting of these cables will be.  This is true not only for the project developers but also for the conservation community, as well as other communities such as Native American tribes for whom there can be concern over the possible impacts to submerged cultural and archeological sites. 

Ocean planning is a process that does not pre-permit or pre-approve the siting of a wind farm’s turbines or cable. Rather, it brings together relevant state and federal management agencies and tribal representatives with input from stakeholders, to define goals and guidelines for appropriate uses and conservation priorities for ocean spaces. 

The foundation of an ocean plan is the data that is necessary for managers to be able to make informed decisions.  In many cases, maps are developed and standardized for spatially explicit data. By layering these maps, areas can be initially identified that may be of particular ecological concern or appropriate for various uses. However, there is more to ocean planning than creating maps. Plans seek to articulate changes that are coming in the future.  For example, we know that the Panama Canal expansion will cause a shift in the maritime sector.  While we do not know as yet exactly how that shift will play out, the maritime transportation stakeholders and managers anticipate that there will be more short sea shipping along the coasts. This needs to be considered when evaluating the siting of other uses, in particular those with fixed structures such as wind energy areas. Another non-spatial aspect of an ocean plan is the gathering of information about the economic values of ocean uses such as commercial fishing, recreational boating and whale watching. Many coastal communities rely heavily on the ocean for their livelihoods and many livelihoods are tied to ocean health. Ocean planning allows for managers to take a holistic approach to how the ocean is used and protected.

Some people have said, “Well, we already have the Wind Energy Areas (WEAs) defined by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, why do we need an ocean plan?”  Even within the WEAs, developers have to decide where they want to apply for a lease, and even within that they need to do what some people call “micro-siting” – which is still on a pretty large scale, to determine where exactly they want the turbines. 

I’ll give you one more anecdote about Deepwater Wind and some of their work.  Through the Rhode Island ocean planning process, known as the SAMP (Special Area Management Plan), the state worked closely with stakeholders and Deepwater Wind to designate an area appropriate for renewable energy development. Within that space, Deepwater Wind put an application in for five turbines.  But some of the lobster fishing community as well as other fishermen were concerned about where the turbines had been sited.  Because they had such detailed information from the planning process, they were able to agree to adjust the placement of those turbines to accommodate the concerns of the fishing community.  That would not have been possible in such a congenial manner had not that planning work taken place.  The story is told in a short video Jeff Bill and Offshore Wind: An Unusual Friendship featuring Jeff Grybowski (Deepwater Wind) and Bill McElroy (commercial lobsterman)

SCW: What ocean data is available and how can it be for submarine cable planning? 

Dr. Whitehouse: Ocean plans for federal waters have been completed in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions and the West Coast region is starting the planning process.  Each of these regions have established a data portal where state and federal agencies, as well as many stakeholders, have contributed data.   These portals allow anyone – someone who is concerned with fish habitat, or who works within the submarine sector – to go in and look at all of the available data on a given area.  In some cases there are thousands of data layers in each data portal so it really allows for a very comprehensive view of an area, which is especially useful if you are looking to do something in a particular place. 

These portals are specifically designed to be easy to use. The data has been visualized and the meta-data is also available for every data layer.  The data is displayed at different levels of granularity depending on the information that is available. The collection of data through the planning process unearthed a significant amount of data that had previously not been digitized or was in what we would call the “grey literature” – not available to most people. 

Some of the data layers are probably of particular interest to the submarine cable industry, especially where there are rocky glacial moraines and deep sea coral.  I can give you an example of a case study on the Martha’s Vineyard submarine cable, which provides both electricity and telecommunications to the island off Massachusetts.  That is an interesting case study because, even though it is a relatively short cable, in order to be approved it had to be palatable to the conservation and fishing communities.  It needed to avoid or minimize impact to rocky cobble area in the middle of the cable route as well as salt marshes for the two coastal landings, because those areas are valuable habitats for lobsters and other commercially important fish.  For this project, the developer laid the cable around cobble areas and used horizontal directional drilling to go under the salt marshes. 

The point of this with respect to ocean planning is that because Massachusetts had a state ocean plan and people had already been working together and the data collected for that area was available, it was much easier for the cable company to reach a compromise with the people who were concerned about the cable’s placement. 

One aspect of ocean planning that can’t be quantified or visualized but is important is the trust and better understanding that can be established among stakeholders and managers when they come together to share information and future needs and set common guidelines. Through this proactive process, the expectation is that many conflicts can be avoided.

SCW: Thank you for your time and insight on this subject.  Where can our readers go to get more information about the ocean data portals? 

Dr. Whitehouse: Here are some links that your readers may find useful:

Northeast Ocean Data Portal

Case studies from the Northeast Ocean Data Portal

Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal