Changing Wind Means East Hampton Town’s Energy Goals Within Reach

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Construction is ongoing at Deepwater Wind’s Block Island wind farm.
Construction is ongoing at Deepwater Wind’s Block Island wind farm.
Construction is ongoing at Deepwater Wind’s Block Island wind farm.

By Stephen J. Kotz

Two years ago, when the East Hampton Town Board adopted an ambitious plan to provide all of the town’s electricity through renewable means by 2020, it sounded like the ultimate in pie-in-the-sky platitudes.

But if the Long Island Power Authority approves Deepwater Wind’s revised plans for a $700 million offshore wind farm off Montauk when it awards a number of South Fork-based alternative power generation plans to contractors next month, the town could be well on its way to meeting that goal.

“At the time, we adopted it, there were a lot skeptics,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell. “Even those who supported it knew it was an ambitious goal, but sometimes you have to be ambitious if you want to get something done.”

Mr. Cantwell said he was optimistic Deepwater’s latest proposal for a 15-turbine wind farm capable of generating 90 megawatts of power for East Hampton — enough to power the entire town for the foreseeable future — would win LIPA approval. In 2014, the company’s plan for a more ambitious 35-turbine wind farm that would have served all of Long Island was not chosen, dashing hopes for a quick solution to a growing energy deficit on the South Fork.

But the town is also banking on other sustainable projects, from battery storage facilities that could provide a boost when the town needs electricity the most, to large-scale solar arrays, and a microgrid that would allow more efficient local control of electric distribution.

It is also asking its residents to explore solar for their own homes, get free home energy audits, which can help them shave their own electricity use and bills, and take other small steps from installing energy-efficient light bulbs and smart thermostats to reduce their energy use.

Reforming the Energy Vision

A lot has changed in the past two years. New York State has gotten on board with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision, a new policy that favors the production of renewable power on a local level. The state has also adopted its own goal of obtaining 50 percent of all power from renewable sources by 2030. The tide has seemingly turned in favor of a clean energy future.

“We dig holes to find fuel, transport it halfway across the world, set it on fire to produce energy, send it out over a transmission line and then we boil a kettle of tea with it,” said Gordian Raacke, the executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, at a forum at LTV Studios in Wainscott dedicated clean energy and sponsored by his organization earlier this month.

That model, which has been in place since the Edison Illuminating Company built the first commercial power plant on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan in 1882, is slowly going the way of telegraphs and horse-drawn carriages and will be replaced with a decentralized and far more responsive way to provide electricity, according to Mr. Raacke.

“Decisions are moving from the utility’s board room to the kitchen table or the town board room,” he said.

At the clean energy forum, David Daly, the president and CEO of PSEG — Long Island, said the cost of renewable energy is becoming competitive with traditional fossil fuels, despite the current low prices for both oil and natural gas.

While energy demand is moderating elsewhere in New York State and on Long Island in particular, it continues to grow on the South Fork. In fact, PSEG projects an 8-megawatt shortfall next year, with that deficit growing to 169 megawatts by 2030. That shortfall will eventually lead to brownouts on those hot and humid July and August days when the owners of all those big houses scattered across the East End turn on their televisions and computers, crank up the air conditioning, and run other appliances at the same time.

Mr. Daly said the existing transmission lines simply are not big enough to provide the power the South Fork needs. The answer, he said, is to build larger lines, which would be sure to bring out opponents, or work with East Hampton and Southampton to find appropriate sites for new power sources that don’t necessarily belch out black smoke like the diesel generators now in use to help provide extra power at peak load times.

Other ways to meet the energy supply gap could be found in encouraging more homeowners to install rooftop solar panels, which Mr. Daly said had the potential to cut deeply into future energy shortfalls. Other sizeable savings could be made by ramping up demand response programs, in which electricity consumers enter into voluntary agreements with the utility to reduce their energy use — say, by allowing their thermostats to be adjusted remotely for several hours — during peak load times, to reduce the load on the grid.

“The stars are lining up, if you will,” said Mr. Cantwell. “I hope the powers that be can see that on the South Fork we want a non-traditional solution to our energy problem. The utilities recognize there is a lack of infrastructure to serve our needs and, they know we don’t want any more major transmission lines.”

Depending on Deepwater

There have been missteps along the way. SunEdison, a company the town contracted with last year to build large solar arrays at three town landfill sites, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April. The fate of those projects remain in limbo. Mr. Cantwell added that the town has to do more to be more energy efficient in its own facilities as well.

Frank Dalene, a member of East Hampton’s energy sustainability committee, who was chairman when it recommended the 2020 goals to the town board, said that given the constraints of the South Fork and the fact that transmission lines and power plants are overtaxed, “it is really important that some of our energy comes from the east. Now, it’s all coming from the west. It takes the pressure off.”

Mr. Dalene conceded when the town established its original goal, “it relied heavily on Deepwater” and is still banking on the scaled back plan winning approval to meet its energy goal.

The new Deepwater project has a number of things going for it that make it more attractive, he said. Transmission lines would come ashore at Napeague, which would mean the energy produced by it could be effectively earmarked for East Hampton. Deepwater has also offered to bury the transmission line, which would run to substations in Amagansett and East Hampton as part of its project.

Clint Plummer, a vice president for development with Deepwater, which is based in Providence, Rhode Island, said the firm is cautiously optimistic. Offshore wind power is common in Europe — it was pioneered in Denmark — and increasingly popular in China. Japan is developing offshore wind farms to replace the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was crippled by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

But until now, it has not been employed in the United States. That will change later this year, when a five-turbine wind farm the company is building off the coast of Block Island becomes operational.

“This is our third proposal for Long Island, and it’s the smallest one we have ever submitted,” Mr. Plummer said of the 15-turbine farm presented to PSEG and LIPA for review. “This one is most focused on the South Fork, and that’s important because the South Fork is the place where PSEG needs to find new sources of energy.”

Citing East Hampton’s strong environmental track record, he said, “If there was ever a place in New York State to show that offshore wind could be competitive with fossil fuel, this is the place.”

A rendering of  a proposed lithium battery storage facility off Navy Road in Montauk, one of several alternative energy solutions being considered for East Hampton Town.
A rendering of a proposed lithium battery storage facility off Navy Road in Montauk, one of several alternative energy solutions being considered for East Hampton Town.

Alternatives

But there are other firms competing for LIPA’s favor as well. AES Energy Storage, LLC, which is based in Arlington, Virginia, has proposed three lithium battery storage facilities, one off Navy Road in Montauk, one on Hardscrabble Court in East Hampton, and the third on Leecon Court in Southampton Village.

Tim Ash, the company’s market director, said a battery storage facility simply draws electricity from the system at off-peak hours and releases it for use when demand is at its highest. It doesn’t matter if the energy comes from a wind turbine, solar panel or diesel generator. It is an attractive alternative to PSEG, which would otherwise be hard pressed to deliver the electricity needed at peak times. Plus, they can provide a lifeline during power outages.

“The electric power industry is really at a tipping point,” said Mr. Ash. “PSEG is asking how can we effectively pull from all these resources, and the South Fork is in a position to lead the way.”

Dirk van Ouwerkerk, the lead partner of Anbaric Microgrid, speaking at the energy forum, said microgrids — essentially local management and control of electricity distribution — should also play a role. He likened the current system, in which energy is distributed through the state from Albany, to having air traffic controllers at John F. Kennedy International Airport control traffic at East Hampton Airport.

“By the time the power hits the South Fork, that control room has very little control over the grid,” he said. “We have the opportunity to manage the peaks with local resources.”

“This is real,” Mr. Raacke said of the different proposals. “There are investors putting their money on this, and there are engineers drawing up plans showing it can be done.”

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