Wind Farm Feels the Heat at Joint Hearing

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Members of the East Hampton Town Board and East Hampton Town Trustees heard from roughly 50 speakers on Thursday, May 17. Michael Heller photos

It was a full house at LTV Studios Thursday night for a joint public hearing before the East Hampton Town Board and Trustees on Deepwater Wind’s request to land the power cable from its proposed South Fork Wind Farm at Beach Lane in Wainscott.

Most of the more than 50 people who spoke opposed the wind farm, with concerns about the actual landing site an afterthought. Many said not enough was known about the offshore wind farm or raised concern about future plans to cover large swathes of the Atlantic coast from Maryland to Maine with similar developments. Others questioned the rate Deepwater would be paid for the electricity produced by the wind farm and its impact on customers’ bills. Fishermen said the turbines and their cables would pose hazards to both navigation and their livelihoods.

Supporters most often pointed to climate change and the need for the United States to wean itself of its reliance on fossil fuels as reasons to support the construction of the wind farm, which is proposed for a site about 30 miles southeast of Montauk and which will have 12 to 15 turbines and generate up to 90 megawatts of electricity.

Deepwater has offered a community benefits package it has valued at approximately $8.6 million if it is allowed to bring the cable ashore at Beach Lane. If the town turns down that request, the company plans to land the cable at Hither Hills State Park and said it will withdraw the benefits package.

Thomas Bjurlof, an energy consultant, said the idea of relying on large-scale wind power to supplement peak demand needs for electricity on the East End was simply wrong. Mr. Bjurlof said that Germany, a major developer of wind farms over the past decade, had failed to decrease its carbon dioxide emissions over that same time period. The reason, he said, is “offshore wind is a non-controllable, variable resource. There will be days, often several in a row, many times during the year, when Deepwater produces insignificant or no electric power.”

When that happens, the electricity must be supplied by conventional power plants, which in Germany means coal-fired plants. He said on Long Island because spikes come and go so quickly, it will be necessary to build “fast-start” fossil-fuel powered plants that can take up the slack before demand overpowers supply, resulting in blackouts.

He said the Long Island Power Authority must be aware of the problem because it is planning to spend $500 million upgrading its transmission lines. He questioned whether LIPA or PSEG-Long Island knows how to address the issue of carbon emissions “or are massive capital improvements, guaranteed by the ratepayers, their preference no matter what?”

The author and naturalist Carl Safina also questioned the wisdom of the project. “Is this wind farm really the best way to go clean?” he asked. “Are we simply trading one way of getting our energy from a monopoly for another way of handing a monopoly a literal windfall?” He called for a more decentralized approach, in which the town would solicit smaller scale projects, perhaps developed by local businesses, and present them to LIPA. “In this case the devil is not in the details,” he said. “It is in the fundamental premise of another era of a centralized monopoly running the metering with the added wrinkle of industrial fields in the ocean.”

Carl Safina speaks during a public hearing on the Deepwater Wind Farm proposal at LTV Studios in Wainscott on Thursday.

“Offshore wind development is being planned at a massive scale and the ocean floor is being gridded right now by our federal government,” added Rachel Gruzen. She said not enough was known about the Deepwater project and its impact on the environment for the town to sign off on the Beach Lane landing agreement.

Ms. Gruzan also said it was too early to be debating the wisdom of accepting a community benefits package, adding that separate packages should be awarded to both the town board and the trustees.

“There is no communities benefit package for my neighborhood, and we have not even been acknowledged as stakeholders,” said Claudia Diaz, a resident of Cove Hollow Road, who said a lithium battery storage facility planned at the nearby substation would be a fire hazard and that allowing Deepwater to land its cable at the site would industrialize the neighborhood.

“Once in town Deepwater will claim jurisdictional exemption and claim to be a utility and can build what they like at any noise level,” she said.

Several speakers complained that Deepwater has failed to disclose the rate it will be paid during the 20-year life of its contract with LIPA, although the company has said it is prohibited from doing so because of a nondisclosure agreement that LIPA included in the contract. That arrangement was confirmed last week by LIPA spokesman Sid Nathan.

Nonetheless, Simon Kinsella, who said he supported wind power in general but has criticized the Deepwater project for the secrecy over rates, questioned what he said was the apparent high rate being paid for that energy.

“I am standing before you speaking on behalf of many who like me are baffled why Deepwater Wind continually fails to provide information for us necessary to make an informed decision about the proposal,” he said, arguing that residents will pay an inflated price while market rates are declining. Mr. Kinsella estimated that Deepwater would be paid between 18 and 22 cents per kilowatt hour with 3-to-5-percent raises factored in. By contrast, he said, the market rate for electricity is expected to drop by half, from about 10 cents per kilowatt hour today to about 4.8 cents in 20 years.

Bill Chaleff, one of the first speakers of the hearing, said he supported the wind farm but was concerned that the issue had “polarized the community.” That was borne out when Gordian Raacke, the executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island and a Deepwater proponent, rose to speak.

“We were told no one from Deepwater Wind was going to be speaking tonight,” said Trustee Rick Drew. “I think it is highly inappropriate that a paid advocate should be speaking on behalf of a project for our community.”

Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said Mr. Raacke had a right to speak and asked Mr. Drew, “Do you want to suspend this gentleman’s civil rights?”

“He’s paid by PSEG and LIPA,” Mr. Drew countered. “That’s totally out of order, Rick. I’m disappointed in you,” responded Mr. Van Scoyoc, as some members of the audience began to call out, “Let him speak!”

Mr. Raacke noted that the state comptroller had determined the entire cost of the Deepwater project at $1.62 billion, but he said that figure did not reflect the cost on electric bills.

That can be found by factoring in the savings LIPA will realize from excess wind generated by Deepwater and determining what portion of LIPA’s annual budget is dedicated to the wind farm. The estimate is the average ratepayer will pay $1.19 more a month, he said, while stressing that amount would be fixed while LIPA’s other energy costs could be expected to continue to rise. Overall, he said, the wind farm, as a portion of LIPA’s annual budget, should add no more than 1.6 to 2 percent to a customer’s electric bill.

At Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Raacke did not respond to Mr. Drew’s charges, but in an email on Monday, he said, “I am not a paid consultant to Deepwater and never was.” He acknowledged that Deepwater had been a sponsor of an annual energy forum organized his organization and that it donated money to underwrite the cost of two boat trips to see the Block Island wind farm last year.

“I am not a paid consultant to LIPA or PSEG-Long Island,” he continued. “RELI did have a contract with LIPA from 2012 to 2014 for outreach and advocacy on energy efficiency and renewable energy for customers.” He acknowledged he does serve on the PSEG’s environmental advisory group.

A graph showing the potential for landing the Deepwater Wind cable in Wainscott. Image courtesy of Deepwater Wind.

Francesca Rheannon, a member of the town’s Sustainability Committee, said Deepwater’s plan had its flaws, but stressed that there was no time to continue debating. “We are in a planetary emergency,” she said of climate change. “The most important thing we can do in this room is overcome our differences.” She called for a less centralized electricity system and an end to public utilities and their monopolies.

Cate Rogers urged the town to consider the hidden “economic and social costs” of relying on fossil fuels. “We are paying a devastating cost per metric ton of carbon that we are dumping into our air,” she said, citing global warming and the sea level rise that has resulted in stronger and more frequent storms that have pummeled coastal areas as well as the spread of pests like the southern pine beetle, which some scientists say has been able to expand its range northward due to warmer temperatures.

“Please in your deliberations, add in the costs, the future costs, of attempting to resist somehow what Mother Nature is shouting at us,” she said.

Young people also had their say. Bridget Foley of the Sierra Club said the wind farm was great news.

“To so many people of my age, which we have many of us here, tonight, this project and the locally based wind industry it heralds proves that Long Island is not the hopeless place many people think it is,” she said. “It proves that we collectively know the biggest threat to our communities is climate change.”

Emily Berkemeyer, a 16-year-old high school student representing the Suffolk Student Climate Action Committee, said, “I’m here because my future depends on it” and said if there was not a major change in behavior the world could reach a tipping point by 2030. “My generation is not responsible for the current state of the climate,” she said, “but I’m willing to take responsibility for fixing these problems.”

Melisa Parrott described climate change as “the biggest issue humanity has ever faced” and said more than 90 percent of the heat caught in the atmosphere from global warming goes into the ocean. “We need to find solutions and act on the scale equal to the biggest issue humanity has ever faced,” she said.

While many opponents called for more widespread solar projects instead of one wind farm, Lynn Arthur, a member of Southampton Town’s sustainability committee and manager of Tri-Energy, which promotes alternative sustainable energy solutions, said solar was not a feasible alternative to meet the short-term spikes in electricity demand on the East End. “Wind, in general, is the only renewable energy source that can scale to that level,” she said. “I’m here to tell you if you put solar on every possible rooftop, it’s a tiny percentage. It’s like less than 5 percent of what is needed to meet that demand.

Fishermen and their representatives, who have been some of the wind farm’s earliest critics, were also heard.

Bonnie Brady, the director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, urged the town to deny permission to land the cable until Deepwater has “agreed to and completed comprehensive fisheries research, monitoring and mitigation plan with compensation if need be” to cover the potential costs to commercial fishermen.

She skewered the company for threatening to withdraw its community benefits package if it is not given permission to land the cable in Wainscott.  “They want to effectively take their toys and go home but they won’t. They will still be here,” she said.

Joel Hovanesian, a Rhode Island fisherman, said Deepwater had underestimated the impacts the Block Island wind farm would have on fishermen and failed to live up to its agreements with them. “These people, in my opinion, cannot be trusted,” he said. “They have lied on numerous occasions to the fishermen of Rhode Island. If this is what you want, this what you’ll get.”

Daniel Farnham, a Montauk fisherman, said he supported wind power, but not in the ocean. “Our town’s symbol is the windmill,” he said. “Why not put windmills on the land?” He suggested Camp Hero in Montauk as a good location.

After hearing some three hours of testimony, the board closed the hearing but agreed to accept written comments for two more weeks, until May 31.

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