Express Sessions Experts Tackle Renewable Energy Issues

The panel at Friday's Express Sessions included, from left, Jennifer Garvey, Sylvia Overby, Gordian Raacke, Lynn Arthur, Bridget Fleming and Walter Hoefer. Laurie Barone-Schaefer photo

Despite local municipalities’ best efforts to move away from reliance on fossil fuels, the development of renewable energy on the East End is probably going to rise at odds with the stewardship of the region’s natural resources — but the urgency of the need for that renewable energy is growing.

Those were some of the conclusions drawn by experts and public officials at Friday’s “Express Sessions” conversation on renewable energy, the latest in a series of panel discussions hosted by The Sag Harbor Express at the American Hotel.

“I’m really proud to live in a community where all of us and our elected officials face the problem of climate change and pollution with actual solutions, and very forcefully so,” said Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island. “The reason we are doing all these things, and the reason we have to do them, and the reason we have to do them at scale and very quickly, is that we in this community and globally face the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced. Climate change will affect all of us but will affect future generations to a much greater extent.”

Gordian Raacke. Laurie Barone-Schaefer photo

According to Mr. Raacke, scientists have been warning against climate change since the 1950s, but action has not occurred quickly enough. He said “we have about just 10 years to bend the curve” of the carbon emissions and pollution that are currently sending the environment on a downward spiral.

“Nature has given us a deadline, and missing nature’s deadline is simply not an option,” he said.

Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, who chairs the legislature’s Renewable Energy Construction Task Force, said as new energy sources are developed, planners, builders, officials and residents have to continue to be stewards of natural resources. She cited controversial solar array projects in Mastic, Middle Island and Yaphank as sensitive because they involved the large clearing of trees, and said such projects need to be evaluated on a site-by-site basis.

“Trees are carbon sequesters, they provide habitat for wildlife, they create coastal resiliency, they hold onto our soil,” Ms. Fleming said. “There are all kinds of reasons why our woods are important. We have to be extremely mindful of how we use these resources, even if we are thinking of moving forward in an environmentally sensitive way.”

She cited the East End’s coastal environment as a reason why it is more prone to extreme weather events that are often associated with climate change.

“The costs to our community are exponentially higher than it is for many others,” Ms. Fleming said. “If not us, who is going to get this right?”

Bridget Fleming. Laurie Barone-Schaefer photo

In addition to renewable energy development, she called for the modernization of the energy grid and expansion of its capacity in Suffolk County, plus more electric car charging stations.

Walter Hoefer, the contract manager for energy efficiency programs with PSEG Long Island, said one of the power grid’s major needs along with renewable sources is a significant reduction in the peak demand for electricity during the summer — particularly on the South Fork, where, because of the size of the houses, PSEG often sees “10 times the demand” that other regions on Long Island may see. He encouraged people to install variable speed pool pumps, programmable “smart” thermostats and more energy efficient appliances — and financial incentives often exist for homeowners to do so. For instance, he said, if an upgraded pool pump costs around $600, PSEG has a program that offers up to $350 back to install that new pump.

“Our focus is on general energy efficiency for our homes and businesses,” Mr. Hoefer said. “I’m a South Fork person. I live in East Quogue. I cannot believe how difficult it is for me to get people on the South Fork, east of the canal especially, into our programs.”

According to Lynn Arthur, executive director at Peak Power Long Island and a consultant to Southampton Town on its energy-focused initiatives, battery technology is emerging as an important part of sustainability and an alternative to diesel generators. Small-scale battery systems exist for homes and businesses, and large-scale battery complexes can be built to store power and supplement the grid with electricity during peak times. Although they are on the expensive side now, she said, prices will come down soon enough.

Ms. Arthur said another part of forward-thinking renewable energy policy is creating a uniform code from town to town.

“We’d like to have a consistent code across the entire region because we need more solar,” she said, in response to Sag Harbor resident Carol Hance, who wondered whether solar panels had been banned in the village. “We’re in the process of going to the trustee meetings in the various towns — you’re on the list — to basically lobby them to look into this. We’re going to make an attempt to try to change their minds.”

RELATED: Demystifying Solar in Sag Harbor

The conversation would not have been complete without representation from Deepwater Wind, the company that is proposing a 15-turbine, $1.6 billion offshore wind farm at least 30 miles off the coast of Montauk. Representing Deepwater Wind during the panel discussion was Jennifer Garvey, the company’s Long Island development manager.

Ms. Garvey said the wind farm would be “so far away that they would literally be off sight” from the beaches, and it would offset “millions of tons of carbon dioxide” from energy production. The project is still in its early phases. It has yet to earn approval from East Hampton Town for the public easements the landing cable would require up through Beach Lane and other roads in Wainscott, which it needs before it can advance in the approval process with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a federal agency. The project has been controversial almost since day one, with fishermen and environmental advocates calling for more independent research and guarantees of assistance for commercial fishermen in the event the wind farm gets built and damages the region’s current lucrative fishing industry.

Jennifer Garvey. Laurie Barone-Schaefer photo

“Fishermen do not like offshore wind, but there are ways that we can work together. Fishing and offshore wind can coexist,” said Ms. Garvey, who has had to answer some tough questions from the public in recent months. “I do expect you to hold our feet to the fire. We have a lengthy two-year permitting process to go through. I definitely appreciate the hard questions. The more questions that we get, the better we can scrutinize ourselves.”

East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby is one of the people asking those questions of Deepwater Wind. Ms. Overby, another Express Sessions panelist, said Friday that the environmental questions “are most important to us.”

“We know renewable energy is the thing we can’t ignore, and wind energy is a big part of having to solve this puzzle,” she said. “We want to make sure we do the right thing and that everyone’s questions are answered.”

She touted several environmental initiatives that East Hampton Town has put in place, such as the installation of electric car charging stations and offering home energy audits through the Long Island Green Homes program. The town will soon roll out a solar energy initiative that allows groups of potential residential solar clients to access contractors via transparent, collective pricing. The East Hampton Town administration has set a goal to be 100-percent reliant on renewable energy by the year 2030 — similar to Southampton Town’s goal of 2025.

“It’s a heavy lift, a big task, and we’ve been working at it,” Ms. Overby said. “We want to be the poster child for doing the right thing.”

When the discussion was opened up to questions and comments from the public, Sag Harbor resident Eric Cohen raised his hand. “Seven or eight years ago, when you would talk about renewable energy, you would hear a lot about geothermal,” he said. “I haven’t heard geothermal once. Is that no longer considered viable or useful?”

Mr. Raacke immediately responded to say geothermal systems — which rely on the steady below-ground temperature to heat and cool buildings — are “very valid technology” that help to “decarbonize the heating cycle.”

“The industry was in its infant stage a few years ago,” he said. “Now is a good time to get a proposal from several contractors.”

Mr. Hoefer said PSEG is even offering rebates on geothermal systems. “It can be a great solution,” he added.

Resident Gigi Morris asked Ms. Garvey how a project like Deepwater’s wind farm would provide for the South Fork’s increased summer population.

“The South Fork Wind Farm is not meant to replace, it is meant to compliment the existing systems,” Ms. Garvey replied. “In the summertime, it will be running alongside power that comes from the west.”

Mr. Raacke jumped into the conversation to say the South Fork’s peak electricity usage times are Friday and Saturday evenings in the summer. “Solar is a great resource, but not for meeting peak demand,” he said.

Crippling storms were on the mind of Sara Gordon of Shelter Island.

“We will have a disabling storm at some point. We’ve seen what that’s done to other territories,” she said. “I think I just want to encourage us to figure out a way through whatever regulatory impasses there are and move quickly so we can be collecting, storing and distributing energy within our communities.”

Jesse Matsuoka, a Sag Harbor resident and business owner, wondered whether water main generators could be installed or whether tidal energy could be captured on the South Fork.

“Part of the challenge we have here is our coastline is our gold. It’s our oil, our value,” Mr. Hoefer said. “[Tidal energy] is not practical. The fishermen are already concerned about the Deepwater Wind turbines.”

Mr. Raacke said it would be “another five to 10 years until we have those emerging technologies fully available.”

Southampton resident Mark Abramson asked Mr. Hoefer about PSEG ratepayers whose houses are so solar-optimized and energy efficient that they are actual energy producers for the energy grid. He said his energy surplus at the end of the year is around 850 kilowatt hours, but the dollar amount he got back from the utility was “minimal.”

Mr. Hoefer said that’s because the wholesale rate of energy buyback from ratepayers has come down significantly from what it used to be. He thanked Mr. Abramson for his energy efficiency efforts — “It’s good to be that way,” he said — but acknowledged the house had probably been over-engineered.”

Mr. Raacke summed up the need for renewable energy by comparing its impact to the reliance on fossil fuels.

“We want to put it on a scale and weigh it against what would be happening if we didn’t do it,” he said. “We are removing entire mountaintops in Appalachia for coal to burn in our power plants. We are destroying entire ecosystems in Canada to get natural gas. We are fracking. We are doing a lot of terrible things and we never think about it when we put that toast in the toaster, and that’s got to stop. I would argue that the things we are looking to do going forward are far less by orders of magnitude, far less of an impact on our environment than what we’re doing now.”

Sag Harbor resident Gigi Morris asks a question about Deepwater Wind as fellow Sag Harbor resident Eric Cohen looks on. Laurie Barone-Schaefer photo