Offshore wind farms have been pitched as a critical cog in the drive to reduce the use of fossil fuels to power American life, while trying to fend off the worst effects of climate change.
But will the environmental and economic problems the construction and operation of the giant wind turbines cause be outweighed by the long-term benefits? And are state and federal regulators, or the wind farm developers themselves, doing enough to offset or protect against those problems?
These were the questions put to the panel of experts at the first “Press Session” event held in East Hampton last Thursday afternoon, September 26, at Rowdy Hall. Representatives of the fishing and offshore wind industry, environmental and renewable energy advocates, and local government officials each shared their perspective.
Last week’s Press Session panel included Dr. Francine Kershaw, a large marine mammals expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council; Bonnie Brady, a commercial fishing advocate; Gordian Raacke, a renewable energy advocate; Jennifer Garvey, Long Island development coordinator for Ørsted, the company proposing to build the South Fork Wind Farm; East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby; and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.
Over lunch, panelists shared their thoughts about the future of offshore wind development and the positive and negative impacts it may have, and answered questions from the audience of several dozen residents who had purchased tickets to the discussion.
While the local debate of late has focused largely on the route that the wind farm power cable will follow once on land, the grander debate over the construction, placement and long-term effects of offshore wind-generated electricity in general have mostly been a matter of the impacts on fishermen and marine species like cod, squid and whales.
Migration And Mitigation
Ms. Brady, who is the director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, said that New York State has been slow to move to protect its fishermen economically, and that not enough is being done anywhere in the region to ensure that the construction of hundreds of wind turbines will not have significant negative impacts on age-old fish migrations.
The state of Rhode Island took steps before the first wind farm projects were proposed to secure financial protection, or mitigation, for its fishermen. That has forced wind farm developers to put in place a legal compensation package for fishermen who may be negatively impacted economically by the placement or construction of the wind farms.
New York laid no such groundwork, and while it has started to write in similar demands for future wind farm applications, nothing of the sort is required for the South Fork Wind Farm.
“The reason Rhode Island had a say as to what was going on in their wind energy area is because they had legislative language that protected their fishing industry,” Ms. Brady said. “For the last two years, I have been begging … to have similar language or rights put onto this project, so the commercial fishermen have some say over the grounds where they catch fish. I’ve been pleading with the state … there must be something to protect fishermen.”
If it wins federal approval, the South Fork Wind Farm would be built in an area known as Cox Ledge, where a rocky plateau slopes into deeper water about 15 miles off Block Island and 30 nautical miles from Montauk. Ms. Brady called the renowned fishing area some of the “most pristine cod grounds that exist.”
She worried that the pile-driving of the turbine foundations into the sea floor could kill cod and harm other species, or that the spinning turbines and electric pulses from the power cables sending electricity ashore would drive the species out of the area.
The same concerns about noise and other emissions by the wind farm have been raised with regard to marine mammals like whales — especially those whose populations are faint shadows of what they once were.
Dr. Kershaw has focused much of her work for the NRDC on the North Atlantic right whale, one of the world’s most endangered species, with just 400 individuals and only 95 breeding-age females remaining.
Dr. Kershaw said that the species is already being pushed closer to the edge of extinction by human activity. Being hit by ships and entanglement in buoy lines of lobster traps are the most common causes of death for right whales.
“They’re at the point where they can’t really withstand any additional stresses,” Dr. Kershaw told the audience at last week’s discussion.
She also noted that the Rhode Island and Massachusetts Wind Energy Areas — the 1,200-square-mile swath of ocean south of Nantucket that the federal government has designated as acceptable for wind farm development — cuts directly through the right whale’s migration route and critical feeding grounds.
But, she said, the NRDC believes that with careful management and practices, the construction and operations of a wind farm can be done without posing critical risk to right whales. The group has developed a detailed list of “best management practices” that it says will reduce risks.
The group recommends gravity foundations for wind turbines which require no hammering of pilings into the sea floor, she said, and if pile-driving is necessary that it be done during months when right whales are not in the area, and that the underwater noise is cloaked, somewhat, with noise-reducing technology.
She said the NRDC believes that the need for non-fossil fuel-generated energy is great enough that allowing offshore wind to forge ahead and trying to minimize the impacts is the more environmentally sensitive approach in the grand scheme.
“We do believe that offshore wind can be developed responsibly as long as these science-based management practices are followed throughout the development,” Dr. Kershaw said. “There is no doubt that climate change is the biggest threat to marine life and marine mammals in the long term. There is a really urgent need to tackle this problem.”
Fishermen have also said that massive wind farm developments could pose a safety hazard to them as they cloud radar and make it difficult for boats to navigate through an area in less-than-ideal conditions.
They have asked for more space between the turbines so that fishing boats towing their nets, which can make them cumbersome and slow to turn, can fish within the arrays.
Ørsted responded and re-drew the planned layout of the South Fork Wind Farm to increase the space between turbines from 0.8 to 1 nautical mile.
“Obviously, the goal is coexistence between fishing and offshore wind,” Ms. Garvey, the Ørsted representative, said at the discussion. “We’ve gone so far as to ask [the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] to pause the review of our application so we could address that.”
Ms. Garvey noted that the company also abandoned a proposal to bring the power cable to shore through Gardiners Bay, because of objections raised, in part, by baymen.
Commercial fisherman Dan Farnham, who was among the attendees at Thursday’s session, said that as wind farms get larger they will also need avenues for boats steaming for safe harbor to move through them.
“The ocean is a dangerous place,” Mr. Farnham said. “We work out there year-round when it is blowing 60 miles per hour and there’s 20-foot seas. Now, imagine trying to navigate through several hundred turbines. You have the choice of weaving through there, or take 12 hours and go around them, with a hurricane bearing down on you.”
He said that radar does not function well in the turbine arrays, and that fishermen have been asking for transit lanes — broader gaps between sections of turbine arrays — to allow boats to steam through wind farms more safely.
Ms. Garvey said that Ørsted has labored to address the concerns of fishermen with regard to the placement of the turbines in the South Fork array and is working to design the layout of future developments smartly.
“We’ve really tried to listen to the fishing concerns and respond with adjustments in spacing,” she said. “That is still an evolving conversation. It’s something the industry is grappling with. There are not hard-and-fast rules, and it is something the Coast Guard is working on.”
A Trip To Albany
There is also work to be done on the process the South Fork Wind Farm application is being put through, and that future wind farm developments will face as well, Mr. Thiele said, adding that lawmakers are left in the position of trying to stand up for their constituents against a distant authority whose own long-ago drafted duties will dictate what happens locally.
The veteran lawmaker called out the example of the recently announced “settlement” meetings that are part of the state Public Service Commission’s review of the plans for the power cable that will tie the wind farm to the power grid on land.
The first meeting of the dozens of individuals, organizations and municipalities registered as parties to the application is to be held next Tuesday, October 8 — less than two weeks after it was announced — in Albany.
“This meeting is in Albany — this project is on the East End of Long Island,” Mr. Thiele quipped. “It’s one thing to say we have a process to bring people together. But, to me, that is not an open process if you make people get in a car and drive 250 miles to Albany — and, believe me, I know this trip very well.”
He also said the state effort to identify the best place to bring the cable ashore seems to have become bogged down in finding a “path of least political resistance” rather than using environmental and objective information. He suggested that LIPA’s concealment of the costs of the power project have added to the negative feelings surrounding the region’s first wind farm proposal.
Mr. Thiele had been an early supporter of the South Fork Wind Farm plans, but he very publicly withdrew his support last fall for a time because of changing details in the proposal that he said amounted to “bait-and-switch” tactics.
But he also co-sponsored legislation this year called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which has advanced the state’s pledge to draw huge amounts of power from renewable energy sources in the next two decades, and he said last week that it’s important to advance the process as quickly as the ability to mitigate its impacts will allow.
“This is a major corporation proposing major industrial infrastructure in my Assembly district, and that infrastructure, while providing for a good goal, also has major impacts,” he said. “Nonetheless, we need to move forward with this project, and we continue to work together.”
Ms. Overby said that while most members of the Town Board have voiced support for the South Fork Wind Farm, they are also committed to protecting the interests of the fishermen in whatever way they can.
“The resolve of the Town Board is to protect the environment and our fishing industry, which is very important to the community and how many jobs it creates,” Ms. Overby said, “but we believe that the turn to renewables is going to be what saves both our community and our fishing industry.”
She noted that the Town Board will have a final say, of sorts, on the landing of the power cable, should the state review determine that it should come ashore in Wainscott, or anywhere else where it would have to run beneath town roads and require contracts with the town.
“The only play the town has is … if they decide on Wainscott, then we decide to give them easements,” she said. “We have not decided that.”
Mr. Raacke, who has spent most of his career advancing the use of renewable energy, said that whatever the “costs” of building offshore wind, they are costs that are worth bearing, because the price of not doing so is far greater.
“Renewable resources have two costs: the capital costs to install, and the cost of not going with renewables — which we call externalities,” he said. “Damage to our environment, to our climate. We pay for the non-action as well.”
The regularly held Press Sessions events bring together a panel of experts and local players in a given field for a frank discussion of some the most pressing topics in each of the East End towns, villages and hamlets. A second similarly formatted discussion will follow in East Hampton on October 24, focusing on the affordable housing crisis.