New York to Make Good on the Promise of Offshore Wind

The state hopes a new project will finally begin to tap an enormous source of renewable energy.
Turbine support at Rhode Island's Block Island Wind Farm, the first commercial offshore wind power plant under construction in the United States. (Photo: Deepwater Wind)
Jul 20, 2016· 4 MIN READ· 9 COMMENTS
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

New York is close to approving the state’s first offshore wind farm, hoping to sidestep the controversies that have left other East Coast projects in limbo and the United States’ vast offshore wind capacity untapped.

The 15-turbine plant—planned for a spot about 30 miles off Montauk, the easternmost town on Long Island’s South Fork—would generate 90 megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power about 50,000 homes.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threw his support behind the South Fork project last week, saying in a statement that it “would demonstrate New York’s leadership on climate change and help achieve the state’s ambitious goal of supplying 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030.” The state plans to do that by increasing energy from hydroelectric, solar, biomass, and wind sources, aiming for a 40 percent cut in carbon emissions from the sector.

Renewables accounted for 23 percent of New York’s electricity supply in 2015, according to a recent report from the New York Independent System Operator, a not-for-profit that manages the daily operations of the state's power grid.

For now, however, state energy officials have asked the Long Island Power Authority’s board of directors to put off the decision, according to The Associated Press, pending the release of a comprehensive offshore wind plan for New York. That plan is likely to encompass a proposed federal wind-lease auction this year for 81,000 acres sitting about 11 miles offshore of western Long Island and New York City.

The nation’s first major offshore wind project was supposed to have been Cape Wind, a 130-turbine, 468-megawatt plant first proposed more than 15 years ago for a site about five miles south of Cape Cod, in Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound. The project became mired in controversy and lawsuits as Cape Cod’s wealthy residents objected to the prospect of wind turbines marring their multimillion-dollar views. In early 2015, with the project years behind schedule, two utilities canceled their power purchase agreements with Cape Wind’s developer, putting its potential to attract financing in doubt.

Largest US offshore wind farms

By contrast, the South Fork proposal appears to have local support, notably in the town of East Hampton, where the wind farm’s transmission lines would connect to land. The town council voted in 2014 to secure a completely carbon-free electricity supply by 2020, followed by transportation and heating in 2030. “The citizens of East Hampton have been visionary about that goal, very vocal in their support for offshore wind,” said Kit Kennedy, the director of the energy and transportation program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One advantage that South Fork has over Cape Wind: Its 30-mile distance from land means that the turbines will not be visible on the horizon.

“With a project like South Fork, there will be stakeholders who’ll have issues, and that is what the permitting and environmental process to come is all about—identifying potential impacts and seeing if they can be mitigated by design and other measures,” said Kennedy. “That’s the process for any type of big energy project. The scale and drama of the Cape Wind experience is just not going to be replicated here.”

The South Fork wind farm would be the first phase of an eventual 200-turbine, 1,000-megawatt plant, according to Deepwater Wind, the Providence, Rhode Island–based company that won the lease for the site in a 2013 federal auction. “Depending on permitting, construction could begin as early as 2019 with the project online by 2022,” company spokesperson Meaghan Wims wrote in an email.

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Deepwater Wind is the first firm in the United States to take a commercial offshore wind power plan all the way from leasing to construction: a five-turbine, 30-megawatt plant in Rhode Island waters called the Block Island Wind Farm. “We’ll soon be entering the final stages of construction on the Block Island Wind Farm. Construction will wrap up later this summer, and we’ll be up and running by the end of the year,” Wims stated.

The wind farm will supply Block Island’s 1,100 residents, who currently rely on a combination of diesel generators and high-cost power from the mainland, but it will barely tap into the United States’ estimated 4 million megawatts or more of potential offshore wind power.

The European Union, in contrast, operates 78 offshore wind farms, and six more are under construction, with a total capacity to generate 13,000 megawatts of electricity, according to the European Wind Energy Association.

“Europe’s been doing offshore wind for almost two and a half decades,” said Laura Small, a policy associate at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank. “They have a strong supply chain, companies that are experienced, and policies to support it, and general EU targets as well as country targets for renewable energy, sometimes offshore wind targets specifically.”

Asia, China, Japan, and North Korea generated 776 megawatts from offshore wind power as of late 2015. “They have strong targets,” said Small. “China’s been installing wind like crazy—it has installed more straight-up wind in 2015 than Europe. I think there’s a lot of promise in Asian markets for offshore wind, particularly as Japan moves off nuclear.”

There are perhaps a dozen offshore wind power projects in a “more advanced stage of development,” mostly along the East Coast, according to Small. These include Deepwater Wind’s South Fork and Block Island plants, as well as one off the coast of Oregon, and one in Lake Erie in Ohio.

State-based targets for offshore wind—such as the one New York will likely announce soon—will help the industry advance, Small believes. But a clear federal policy would be the best boost. There’s been an attempt: Sen. Tom Carper from Delaware and Sen. Susan Collins from Maine introduced the Incentivizing Offshore Wind Act in 2015, “but it hasn’t gone anywhere,” she said.

To spur more activity without waiting for Congress, the Obama administration has been working with East Coast states to define Wind Energy Areas that don’t conflict with fisheries or coastal shipping, said NRDC’s Kennedy. Companies would bid to develop these areas at Bureau of Ocean Energy Management auctions—the same process used for offshore oil and gas leasing. “What offshore wind developers really need to proceed is a lease and a power purchase agreement to sell the power, which will make financing a sizable project easier,” she said.

At least one local commercial fishing group, the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, opposes the South Fork offshore wind farm. “Make no mistake about it, the Town of East Hampton has sold out commercial fishermen,” the group recently posted on its Facebook page after a flurry of media attention to the proposal.

But environmentalists appear supportive. “On balance—and we’ve looked at this for 15 years or so—[fears of] impacts of wind power on marine mammals are overblown,” said Patrick Ramage, the director for global whale programs at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

At the outset of offshore wind construction, when turbine supports are being attached to the seafloor, “you can hear the impacts of the pile driving as much as 40 miles away, and there is disturbance of marine mammals in the area,” he said. But the effect appears to be temporary, he said, while “obviously the move toward renewables is better for marine wildlife and the protection of the ocean habitat on which their lives, and ultimately our own, depend.”

“Each of the projects needs to be evaluated particular to that marine habitat and needs to go through an environmental impact statement,” he added. But “from exploration to extraction to combustion, fossil fuels are a far more serious threat.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

Correction July 21, 2016: An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of electricity from renewable power sources in New York State. According to a 2016 report from the state’s grid operator, that amount was 23 percent in 2015. An earlier version of this article also misstated how many homes on Long Island could be powered by Deepwater Wind’s proposed offshore wind farm; that number is 50,000.

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