London Array, an offshore wind farm in the United Kingdom that produces enough energy to power 500,000 homes a year. Photo courtesy London Array Limited.
By Mara Certic
The East Hampton Town Board made history last month when it became the first town in New York State to establish the goal of meeting all the town’s electricity needs with renewable energy by the year 2020. A proposed 200-megawatt wind farm 30 miles east of Montauk Point could produce up to a fifth of those expected energy needs.
The goals have been described in the media as “lofty,” but renewable energy professionals are adamant that they are not just tilting at windmills—this battle can be won.
In just four years, an old energy substation on the east end of Long Island is slated to become one of the first in the United States to connect to and be powered by a large offshore wind farm. Deepwater Wind, of Rhode Island, won a bid to develop a 256-square-mile area in 2013. Its current proposal is to install 35 six-mega-watt turbines, which would supply the five East End towns with 200 megawatts of energy.
Extending 550 feet from the water line to the tip of the blade when fully extended, the turbines really are “quite large,” according to Jeff Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind. Each turbine is pretty much equivalent in size to the Washington Monument which, at 555 feet tall, is the tallest structure in the District of Columbia. Deepwater Wind officials maintain that the turbines will be installed “over the horizon” and therefore will not be visible from any point in Long Island.
Established in 2005, Deepwater Wind is dedicated exclusively to offshore wind and focuses predominantly in the Northeast, from New Jersey to New England. This is the area, according to Mr. Grybowski, where company officials believe offshore wind farms are most likely to be established first “mainly because there are relatively few options in the Northeast for building large-scale renewable energy.” He added that the offshore wind resource here is “one of the strongest in the world.”
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) 4.18 percent of all generated electricity in the United States comes from onshore wind power. Deepwater Wind’s demonstration-scale project three miles southeast of Block Island is on track to become America’s first offshore wind farm in 2016.
As any seaman will tell you, offshore wind is stronger than wind traveling over land, providing Long Island with “a great opportunity,” according to David Alicea of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
Deepwater ONE—the name for the project off of Montauk—would deliver power to an existing LIPA-owned substation on the South Fork via transmission cables buried below roads. Deepwater Wind claims that this specific project could provide electricity to more than 120,000 houses, reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality.
“Offshore wind really is the best way,” Mr. Alicea said. The 122-year-old Sierra Club, founded by conservationist John Muir, is the biggest non-profit environmental organization in the United States. According to Mr. Alicea, for the past few years, climate change has come to the forefront of environmental issues the organization focuses on because it “really connects to everything.”
“I think Super Storm Sandy is what made it really apparent to the Long Islanders, that there’s a real risk here,” he said. “But the geography that threatens us also provides us with a solution.”
He stressed the importance of ensuring that the project be good for the environment in every way, and that Deepwater Wind is indeed doing its due diligence to prevent any undesirable ecological impacts. “They have agreed to be really mindful in their construction and they’ve been a great partner to work with for a number of environmental groups,” he said.
But Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, does not share Mr. Alicea’s optimism about the project. “It’s like anything in life,” she said about the proposed wind farm. “If it sounds like it’s too good to be true, it usually is.”
Ms. Brady’s concerns about Deepwater ONE range from disrupting air traffic (“They have to put lights on them, but then there are these little things called planes!”) to noise pollution (“What travels best on water? Sound.”) Her main worry, however, is the effect that she predicts the wind farm will have on the fishing industry.
“This is an industrial event on the ocean floor and it’s a big deal,” she said. “People hear the word ‘green’ and they think it’s passive and green. This is pile-driving the ocean floor. What do you think a little pile-driving is going to do to [fish]?” Potentially disrupt their habitats and migratory patterns, she fears.
According to Lauren Thompson, an environmental consultant in the renewable energy sector in the United Kingdom, who was interviewed by email, these concerns are legitimate. The United Kingdom currently has 22 operational offshore wind farms and over 50 more in development. Part of her job, she explained, is to help minimize the environmental and social impacts of offshore wind farms.
Effects on migratory bird paths, marine mammal feeding and breeding grounds, fish-spawning grounds, erosion and noise pollution are all meticulously studied and assessed over a period of several years, she said.
Most of these impacts are “carefully considered during the development phase, and minimized as far as possible,” said Ms. Thompson. “Wind farm developers are required to consult with environmental and fishing groups closely during the planning process to reach agreement on which measures will be used.”
Merlin Jackson, a fisherman based out of Ramsgate Harbor in Kent, England, who was interviewed by email, believes that the studies haven’t gone far enough. He claims to have experienced environmental side effects of several nearby offshore wind farms. “There is no doubt that these farms have had an effect on the fishermen here,” he said. “But it remains to be seen how far-reaching that will be and whether the benefits will outweigh the negatives.”
Mr. Jackson said that in addition to the scientific surveys done by developers, “there are many other surveys and site specific studies that could be put in place to make the impacts clearer and to gain the confidence of the fishermen.”
Ms. Thompson explained that in the United Kingdom, even after environmental studies and consultations have been conducted, developers, in general, end up paying compensation to fishermen if they disrupt their normal fishing grounds during construction.
“You need to pay [the fishermen] for that privilege,” said Ms. Brady. “They need to bring their checkbooks.”
Architect and chairman of the Energy Sustainability Advisory Committee Frank Dalene, however, feels that their worries might be exaggerated. He maintained that although there are legitimate arguments and concerns about offshore wind farms, “it’s really a benign impact.”
“In Europe there are 2,500 wind farms offshore in 11 countries, producing almost 10 gigawatts of energy,” he said. “It’s already developed [there], which is a great way to dispel myths.”
He spoke about a plan to take concerned fishermen on the East End to those European countries where they can see the actual effects of offshore wind farms on the industry. Mr. Dalene added that continuing to burn fossil fuels would have “a more lasting impact on the fishery.”
“We could be one of the first in the country to do this and really make this transition away from fossil fuels,” said Mr. Alicea. Matt Kearns, a Long Island-native and dedicated member of the Sierra Club, is determined for that to happen.
He is so determined that on Saturday, June 14, Mr. Kearns will be running 100 miles, from the Montauk Lighthouse to the Long Beach Boardwalk, just to make a point.
“As a runner I wanted to do something that would connect coastal areas that could benefit from building job-creating offshore wind,” he said. “We’re showing that although Long Island families are at risk from worsening climate disruption, we also have the resources to help solve it by building renewable offshore wind.”
The run, Mr. Alicea said, aims to demonstrate to the powers that be that Long Island is behind the plan. He added that a poll done by the Sierra Club showed 80 percent of Long Islanders support offshore wind farming.
Mr. Alicea, and the Sierra Club, are using the run to demonstrate to Governor Cuomo, LIPA and PSEG that the East End is ready and that this is what they want. “A lot of it hinges on the governor. He’s been really involved in Long Island’s energy policy and making all these decisions,” he said. “If he gives the green light and says New York State is behind this, they’ll do it.”
Environmental studies have already begun for the Deepwater ONE site and when completed, if the project is approved and accepted by the power authorities, wind energy could be responsible for turning on East Hampton’s lights as early as 2018.
Gordian Raacke, the founder of Renewable Energy Long Island, said “People are afraid of it because it’s something new and something different. It’s like everything else; change is always scary and meets some resistance. But people have to have a change to experience it.”