Developers looking to build thousands of wind turbines off the Mid-Atlantic and New England coast are coming up against a force even more relentless than the Atlantic winds: the Iron Law of Megaprojects, offering a warning of the trouble ahead for green-energy projects.
The Iron Law, coined by Oxford Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, says that “megaprojects” — which cost billions of dollars, take years to complete, and are socially transformative — reliably come in over budget, over time, over and over.
From Boston’s Big Dig to California’s high-speed rail to New York’s 12 years-overdue and 300% over-budget East Side Access rail project, big boondoggles routinely demonstrate the validity of the rule.
Offshore wind projects are not immune to the Iron Law, regularly experiencing vast cost overruns before a single watt is generated.
The New York state government, looking to replace oil- and gas-fired powerplants with hundreds of wind towers off Long Island, set out in 2019 to create an offshore wind supply chain from scratch, beginning with a massive state-funded turbine fabrication facility about 100 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River.
Ground still hasn’t even been broken, but the budget certainly has: The price of that Port of Albany facility has already doubled from $350 million to $700 million. An additional $100 million may be needed for equipment costs, raising the final price tag to $800 million.
A similar situation is playing out in New London, Connecticut, where a state-funded pier facility being built to support that state’s offshore wind buildout has more than doubled in price from an original estimate of $95 million to $250 million.
And in Massachusetts, developer Commonwealth Wind has asked the state to scrap its power purchase guarantees and rebid the project, arguing that inflation and supply chain problems mean the project is not financially viable under its current contracts.
Big projects tend to exceed their cost projections for many reasons. One is the unanticipated, and sometimes unprecedented, complexity of these projects. Further uncertainties and costs arise from the challenge of navigating the red tape of the modern regulatory state. In addition, there is the risk of inflation for projects that take years, sometimes decades, to develop. Underlying all these is often a failure to spend enough time on careful planning that treats reality as a fundamental constraint.
But sometimes project sponsors may simply worry that accurate cost projections could scare away public support at the outset, and choose to employ what Prof. Flyvbjerg politely calls “strategic misrepresentation.”
As former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said, “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. . . . Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
If that sounds too cynical, note that the current Chair of the Connecticut Port Authority has admitted that when officials first proposed the pier facility, they already knew it would cost more than they were claiming.
Ironically, the New York and Connecticut projects aren’t even big enough to be considered megaprojects, and yet even they have run into the Iron Law of being over budget and behind schedule. The challenges won’t diminish with bigger and more ambitious green energy projects.
In New York, the state’s huge Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act — of which the Port of Albany project is the first substantial investment — is projected to cost between $270 and $290 billion. At that price it is a gigaproject composed of numerous individual megaprojects.
The benefits, mostly in the form of greenhouse gas reductions, are supposed to be up to $415 billion. But if the overall cost of the policy climbs by merely 55 percent, which is in the normal range for megaprojects (and much less than the Port of Albany cost overrun), the costs will exceed the benefits, creating a net loss for New Yorkers.
If costs balloon to twice the initial estimates, which is not uncommon, the state stands to spend more than more than a hundred billion dollars more than gained in benefits That would be a loss of over $30,000 per New York household by 2050.
And that’s assuming the benefits are as good as promised. It gets even worse if, as is common, the benefits have been overstated.
The tale of megaprojects is a cautionary one for the whole country as we attempt to transition away from fossil fuels. Cost estimates for a nationwide transition span from $4.7 trillion to over $60 trillion – almost three times U.S. GDP. Such uncertainty should give us pause for thought before jumping wildly into the financial unknown.
If we’re not careful, we may be digging Willie Brown-style holes, and politically and financially we may find ourselves in too deep to ever get ourselves out.
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