Federal Review Of South Fork Wind Is Complete, Approvals Imminent

The Block Island Wind Farm turbines, as seen from the bluffs in Camp Hero State Park in Montauk. Michael Wright photo

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said last week that it has concluded its review of South Fork Wind, as the 12-turbine wind farm that will send power to East Hampton is now known.

The agency issued a “favorable record of decision” on Wednesday, November 24, according to the project’s developers, Ørsted and Eversource, indicating that it is poised to approve the project.

In issuing its favorable assessment of the application, the federal regulators recommended the approval of a plan that seeks to push the development of the wind farm away from the most sensitive fish habitats that could be impacted by the placement and installation of the wind farm. The option was one that had been pressed for by the East Hampton Town Trustees.

Trustee Rick Drew, who had been the board’s most vocal advocate for siting the turbines away from the rocky slopes of what is known as Cox Ledge, a popular recreational fishing destination where cod are also believed to spawn, said that he sees the BOEM choice of the habitat alternative as a win for the Trustees. He lamented, however, that the language of the recommendations calls only for the turbines to be placed away from important habitat insofar as “economic and technical” considerations allow — a loophole he saw as one the developers will be likely to exploit.

“I am proud that the Trustees had a hand in getting the alternative D, habitat minimization option introduced,” he said. “It could have been worse. I guess sometimes everyone gets a little less than a full loaf.”

The next step would be final approval of the project’s construction and operations plan, which could come as soon as January — with onshore construction of the transmission cable expected to begin shortly afterward in early 2022.

Just a week before the BOEM announcement, a Wainscott resident filed a new lawsuit against the wind farm developers and the Long Island Power Authority, claiming that the original contract between LIPA and Deepwater Wind, the name of the company that first pitched the South Fork Wind Farm as renewable energy source for Long Island, violated state procurement rules.

The new lawsuit filed on behalf of Simon Kinsella argues that because the wind farm cannot produce an “on demand” power supply because of the uncertainties of wind strength, it could not meet terms of LIPA’s initial 2015 request for proposals for renewable energy projects that would help the utility meet growing peak energy demands on the East End.

“Offshore wind turbines cannot be switched ‘on’ if the wind is not blowing,” the legal claim reads. “Wind is least likely to be blowing during hot summer months — the precise time when LIPA required a power resource to meet peak loads from air-conditioning use.”

The suit claims that LIPA violated state law by stepping outside its own RFP guidelines, which called for a “dispatchable” on-demand power source, that was to be located on Long Island and operational by mid-2020 at the latest.

When LIPA and Deepwater Wind inked the $1.6 billion contract for the 90 megawatt wind farm — it was later expanded to 130 megawatts as turbine technology improved outputs — the agreed upon start-up date was 2022. After a year-long “pause” in their application review, to reconfigure the proposed arrangement of turbines to accommodate safety concerns of commercial fishermen, South Fork Wind is now not expected to come online until late 2023 at the earliest.

Mr. Kinsella’s new lawsuit was filed by the Government Justice Center, an Albany nonprofit legal organization that specifically helps members of the public challenge what they see as improper moves by state and local government entities.

Mr. Kinsella already had a previous lawsuit pending against the state Public Service Commission, which issued the approvals earlier this year for the cable landing at Beach Lane in Wainscott. That suit seeks to annul the approvals on the basis that it does not fulfill the demands of “public need” in such approvals because LIPA already plans to purchase power from another planned wind farm for far less.

Mr. Kinsella has been the most vocal in a chorus of critics who have pointed out that the LIPA contract for South Fork Wind saddles its ratepayers with a much higher per-kilowatt-hour price for the power than subsequent power purchase agreements have brought — largely because of its small scale and the fact that it was pioneering when it was inked. The initial 90-megawatt contract will start at 16 cents per kilowatt-hour, increase about 2 percent a year over the 20-year term of the contract, for an average overall cost of about 22 cents per kilowatt hour. The contract for the additional 40 megawatts that was added to the project plans in 2019 will start at just 9 cents per kWh, and the state’s contracts for Sunrise Wind, an 880-megawatt project that will be built by Ørsted directly adjacent to South Fork Wind and will bring power ashore in Brookhaven Town, will start at just 8 cents per kWh.

Mr. Kinsella says annulling the South Fork Wind contracts and letting LIPA start anew, piggybacking on the Sunrise Wind project, could save Long Island residents $1 billion over 20 years.

The wind farm developers and offshore wind supporters — which has long included the governor’s office and major state agencies — brushed aside the legal challenges in heaping praise on last week’s announcement from BOEM and extolling the virtues of South Fork Wind.

“New York State is facing the challenges of climate change head-on, and we thank the Biden-Harris administration for their steadfast support,” said Governor Kathy Hochul. “With today’s permitting milestone, South Fork Wind is set to be New York’s historic first offshore wind farm providing clean energy where it is needed most. Our nation-leading climate and offshore wind goals demand bold action and moving South Fork Wind forward brings us closer to a cleaner and greener future.”

Joe Nolan, the CEO and president of Eversource Energy, said in a release: “We look forward to starting onshore construction soon and moving New York a significant step closer toward reaching its nation-leading clean energy goals.”

“The offshore wind industry is the future of our Long Island economy, and Suffolk County is proud to serve as a national model for creating a greener future for generations to come,” said Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone.

Originally proposed as 15 turbines, each more than 600 feet tall and capable of producing 6 megawatts of power, the final design of the project will be 12 turbines, soaring to some 800 feet and each producing up to 11 megawatts. The project will be built about 30 nautical miles southeast of Montauk, about midway between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard, in an area known as Cox Ledge.

South Fork Wind is still expected to be the first commercial scale offshore wind farm to come online but it will soon be just a speck amid a city of other turbines — more than 400 of which will soon stretch across the horizon in the same region of the ocean. Ørsted has already inked a contract with New York State for Sunrise Wind — 100 turbines immediately adjacent to the South Fork Wind machines — which will also deliver power to Long Island, at Smith Point Beach in Brookhaven Town.

Ørsted and Eversource say that they expect the detailed construction and operations plan to receive final approval from BOEM in January and that the onshore construction phase will begin immediately afterward with the site preparation work and the start of construction of the underground transmission conduits. Local utility companies are expected to start some preconstruction work in early January, in anticipation of the project’s approval.

The onshore work will halt for summer 2022 and resume in the fall with the drilling of the 1,700-foot horizontal conduit. The installation of the 800-foot-tall 11-megawatt offshore turbines is slated for summer 2023.