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Vineyard Wind developer taps state offshore champion as CEO

By Benjamin Storrow | 12/04/2023 06:55 AM EST

Alicia Barton will lead Vineyard Offshore as the company expands along the East and West coasts of the U.S.

Alicia Barton CEO of Vineyard Offshore

Alicia Barton was named CEO of Vineyard Offshore, the developer of the first major U.S. offshore wind project, Vineyard Wind. Vineyard Offshore

A former state regulator and power company executive who helped lay the groundwork for the offshore wind industry in the U.S. is set to become the new CEO at Vineyard Offshore, one of America’s largest wind developers.

Alicia Barton will take over in January from Lars Pedersen, a Danish executive who shepherded the United States’ first major offshore wind project, Vineyard Wind, through development. The 800-megawatt project is under construction in the Atlantic Ocean south of Martha’s Vineyard and scheduled to be completed next year.

In selecting Barton, Vineyard Offshore turned to an industry veteran who was instrumental in the embrace of offshore wind in Massachusetts and New York. As the CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Barton oversaw development of a key staging port in New Bedford, Massachusetts, that is now being used in the construction of Vineyard Wind. She later played a similar role at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, where she helped set a goal of buying vast amounts of electricity from offshore wind as one way to meet the state’s climate goals.

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Barton’s appointment comes at a time when wind developers are struggling with higher interest rates, supply chain bottlenecks and rising construction costs. Developers in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have canceled power contracts because of rising costs. Two projects in New Jersey have been terminated, and a request by a pair of companies in New York to adjust their power contracts to receive higher electricity prices was rejected by state utility regulators.

“I’m taking on this new role clear-eyed about the challenges, but also confident that we’ve got the right ingredients to be successful for the long term,” Barton said in an interview. “For offshore wind in North America, I do think Vineyard Offshore is really well-positioned to be the leader in this market.”

Vineyard Offshore has largely been able to avoid the tumult, in large part due to timing. The developer secured financing and signed construction contracts for Vineyard Wind, which it is building jointly with Avangrid, before the forces of inflation could drive up the cost of the project. By the time Vineyard Offshore inked a contract in October for its 1,300-MW Excelsior Wind project in New York, the price being paid by the state had risen to reflect higher development costs.

Barton’s task will be overseeing continued growth. Industry observers are watching to see if the company will bid on contracts to sell power to New England states next year. The company also has a lease off the coast of California, but does not yet have an agreement to sell its power.

Building additional projects will require the developer to emulate the model it established for Vineyard Wind — “which is to collaborate with our partners in the states,” Barton said. “That’s something that I’m obviously eager to do and well-situated for from my prior roles.”

Pedersen is leaving the company so he can lead global development at Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, the Danish-based parent of Vineyard Offshore. The company saw rapid expansion in the U.S. under his eight-year tenure as CEO. It went from a relatively unknown player to a company with leases off New England, New York and California.

Yet Pedersen will perhaps be most remembered for leading Vineyard Wind through choppy permitting waters during the Trump administration, when the Interior Department unexpectedly called for the project to undergo additional rounds of environmental review and appeared poised to reject its permit during the former president’s last days in office. Vineyard Wind ultimately withdrew its permit application, only to refile it after President Joe Biden took office.

“I think sort of what I have learned the most of being eight years in the U.S. is getting — I don’t know a better word for it — but sort of the social license to actually build these projects,” Pedersen said in an interview. “And that is everything from regulatory work, policy work, stakeholder work, stakeholder engagement, you name it. I think that has to be front and center because that is just the most difficult thing about building any meaningful infrastructure in the U.S.”

Barton is a natural fit as Vineyard Offshore’s next leader, given that she has experience in those areas, Pedersen said.

“She has the battle scars and the tenacity from offshore wind to prove it,” he said. “She’s been on the public side and the private side, seeing both offshore wind and renewables and has the credentials that match what the job needed.”

At FirstLight Power, where she served as CEO, Barton worked to expand a power company that focused on operating existing power plants to one that builds new facilities. The company now has 4,000 MW of solar, energy storage and onshore wind in development. It is also a minority investor in a project being developed off New York by Invenergy.

In New York, Barton led a master planning process at the state energy research and development authority that identified offshore wind as a pillar of the state’s climate and clean energy goals. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) issued an executive order calling for construction of 9 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035, the largest target in the country. The goal was codified in law a few years later.

“Alicia has the unique marriage of understanding what it takes from the regulatory side to make these things a reality,” said Amanda Lefton, a former New York state environment official, who later helmed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management under Biden. “She was such a driving force behind the climate ambition we’re seeing today in the state of New York.”

Her influence was felt in Massachusetts years earlier. Barton went to work as an attorney at the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs when then-Gov. Deval Patrick (D) was promoting Cape Wind. The controversial project was planned in Nantucket Sound at a time when there were no state or federal regulations for offshore wind. Barton helped create them at the state level.

The project ultimately died. By that time, Barton was in charge of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which had taken the lead on developing a staging port in New Bedford for offshore wind projects.

The state had pumped $113 million into the New Bedford port, and critics lambasted the project as a clean energy gamble gone awry. Barton was crucial to navigating that storm, said Bill White, who worked under Barton and led offshore wind development at MassCEC.

“It was obviously a huge setback when it kind of hit us all,” White said. “She was the one that helped lead the pivot for the terminal to find alternative uses for the terminal so it would at least break even.”

The port proved crucial in attracting offshore wind developers to Massachusetts, and showed that the state was committed to investing in the infrastructure needed to build large projects at sea, said White, who is now president of U.S. operations at DEME Offshore, which specializes in offshore wind construction.

The port project also helped persuade Massachusetts lawmakers that there was a future for offshore wind after Cape Wind. In 2016, the year after Cape Wind failed, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a bill requiring its utilities to buy large amounts of offshore wind power.

Today, the New Bedford terminal is bustling with activity. Massive white turbine towers loom over a fleet of fishing trawlers, and huge turbine blades are packed into racks near the water.

“Being down in New Bedford today is validation that the risks she took, that Gov. Patrick took, were warranted,” White said. “She’s been through some of the dark times and some of the good times. She has the judgment and wisdom to be a leader not just for Vineyard Offshore, but this entire industry.”