In The Air: East Coast Offshore Wind Farm Plans Gain Steam, Despite Cloudy Forecast

One of the Block Island Wind Farm structures sits in the Atlantic Ocean in New Shoreham, Rhode Island
FILE PHOTO: One of the Block Island Wind Farm structures, part of the first commercial offshore wind farm in the United States, located 3.8 miles (6km) from Block Island, sits in the Atlantic Ocean in New Shoreham, Rhode Island, U.S., August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

From the shores of Maine to Florida, eyes across the East Coast are looking to the offshore wind farm as the future of green energy, with the latest gust forward coming to the Hamptons.

As officials held a groundbreaking — or a seafloor breaking, as it were — ceremony in Wainscott on February 11 to mark construction starting on the 130-megawatt South Fork Wind, the first offshore wind project in New York State, proponents adjusted their sails for the headwinds the industry faces, from environmental challenges to economic hurdles.

“When you ask what the energy future may look like, I say, ‘The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,’” Gov. Kathy Hochul told the crowd gathered for the ceremonial first shovel in the ground. She apologized to Bob Dylan for co-opting his lyrics, then led the ceremony as the folk song played in the background.

South Fork Wind is one of six offshore wind farms in the works in The Empire State. It follows the nation’s first, which went online off Block Island in 2016 and comes as Massachusetts currently is developing another. The offshore wind push is further along in the Northeast — although in Maine, the push has shifted to the emerging technology of floating wind farms — with environmentalists still working to sell the idea in the Southeast, where nonprofits such as Environment Florida are spearheading campaigns to get officials to pursue offshore wind.

President Joe Biden early last year set a goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy — enough to power 10 million homes — by 2030. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the division of the Interior Department that oversees offshore wind permitting, will hold up to seven lease sales by 2025 in the Gulf of Maine, Gulf of Mexico, and off the coasts of California, the Carolinas and Oregon. And on February 23, BOEM will auction to offshore wind developers six lease areas — sales could result in 5.6 to 7 gigawatts of offshore wind energy, which is enough to power nearly 2 million homes.

But Long Island Power Authority CEO Tom Falcone notes some regions are better politically and geographically suited for offshore wind.

“There are some projects as far down as Virginia,” he said in an interview. “The resource is better up here, the water is shallower up here. That’s the main impediment in California, where the water is deep. So they have very high renewable goals, but it’s hard to construct on existing technologies … As you go farther south, though, the resource isn’t quite as good, but also the states are less aggressive about clean energy goals. Right now there really is no federal energy policy. It’s all state by state. New York is zero carbon by 2040 … There’s no similar goal in Florida.”

LOCAL OPPOSITION

The South Fork Wind farm’s developers, Ørsted & Eversource, who plan to build 12 turbines about 30 miles off Montauk’s coast — enough to power 70,000 homes annually — have faced legal challenges from some Wainscott residents opposed to the cable coming ashore in their community.

Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott filed a motion in the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court to block the construction until the court has an opportunity to rule on the group’s appeal of the state Public Service Commission’s decision allowing the cable to run through the community. The appeals court judges rejected that motion last month, but the suit is pending.

“We continue to support the move to renewable energy and celebrate the progress toward that goal,” the group said in a statement following the groundbreaking. “But we continue to have serious reservations regarding an infrastructure project that runs its cable through residential neighborhoods, and next to a PFAS superfund site, particularly when better alternative sites were available. Our focus will continue to be on protecting our community.”

The group isn’t the only one opposed. Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Montauk-based Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, protested the groundbreaking ceremony while playing an audio recording of what she says the construction noise will sound like from on land. As officials left, she reminded them that the turbines will be built in North Atlantic Right Whale territory.

Michael Wootton, a 63-year-old semi-retired lifeguard from Wainscott, rallied alongside her.

“Wind power is a poor solution to meet peak demand in summertime,” he said, arguing that the oceanfront will be ruined forever by the construction.

Besides the marine life and aesthetic concerns, the larger issue of industrializing the ocean also proves problematic for some.

“These facilities operate on land, where people and our developments and demands for power live, along with the messes we’re created,” said Steven Resler, a retired NY Department of State coastal manager. “They don’t belong in, on, or over the water. Where do they belong on land? Mixed with other energy generating facilities (including solar) in industrial areas, along energy generating transmission corridors outside of residential areas, along major transportation corridors such as interstate and certain state highway medians and right of ways, former landfill sites, and other areas not previously developed.”

ECONOMIC ISSUES

In the bigger picture, the transition to clean energy required to prevent temperatures from rising swiftly could shave 2% off global GDP by 2050 but is likely recoverable before the end of the century, a report by natural resources consultancy Wood Mackenzie said last month.

While investments in technologies like solar and wind farms, and advanced batteries will generate jobs, the transition will also likely cause a loss of jobs and tax revenues in fossil fuel production, said the report called “No Pain, No Gain: The economic consequences of accelerating the energy transition.”

“It’s by no means a way to say that we shouldn’t pursue transition or slow it down,” said Peter Martin, WoodMac’s chief economist. “This pain in the short-term will pay off in the long-term.”

Benefits from limiting the rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as called for by the United Nations, could boost global GDP, on aggregate by 1.6% in 2050, the report said. But actions required to spur the transition to keep temperatures from going above that level could cut 3.6% from GDP in 2050, resulting in the 2% hit, the report said.

The impacts will not be felt evenly. Wealthy economies with deep capital markets that already have big investments in energy transition technologies, or a propensity to invest in new technologies, will be better positioned. France and Switzerland, for example, will likely enjoy a modest boost to economic growth.

The economic benefits of the energy transition should start to show after 2035 and lost economic output would be eventually recouped before the century’s end, the report said.

Regardless, local officials remain optimistic for the future of Long Island’s offshore wind industry.

“In 2014 East Hampton was the first municipality in New York to adopt a 100% renewable energy goal,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “Today, with the beginning of the construction of New York’s first offshore wind farm we are very close to reaching that goal.”

~With Reuters and Julia Moro

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