SUSTAINABILITY - Webinar Offshore Wind Energy Development off NY NJ.jpg

The wind turbines, in Atlantic City, powering operations for the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, are currently the largest in the state. That could change dramatically in the coming years. One project plans turbines offshore, with many more proposals in the works for the coming decade. The advocacy group Clean Ocean Action says renewable energy is needed, but that doesn’t mean they’ll go easy on environmental concerns, members said at a recent virtual meeting.

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LONG BRANCH - Clean Ocean Action supports renewable energy, said Cindy Zipf, executive director of the organization, at a July 22 meeting on wind energy.

“It’s a fact that climate change is accelerating due to humankind’s excessive use of fossil fuels,” she said at the start of the webinar, planned to be the first in a series by the presented environmental advocacy group, “and it is threatening life on Earth as we know it. Our ocean is actually absorbing and buffering much of the impact, but the results are increasing her own demise, from sea level rise, warming seas and ocean acidification.”

She called climate a priority for Clean Ocean Action, saying reducing the use of fossil fuels is vital. That means reduced energy use, she said, and finding alternative sources of energy, including offshore wind power.

For now, wind power generates a fraction of the energy used in the U.S., with enormous wind farms in California, Texas, and elsewhere in the West. There are few wind turbines in the East, either on or offshore. The largest, in New Jersey, is in Atlantic City, where on-site wind turbines help power the Atlantic County Utility Authority’s sewage treatment plant.

There is a single, relatively small offshore wind installation off Block Island, Rhode Island. That could change dramatically in the coming years and decades, with southern New Jersey at the forefront of what could be a massive expansion of offshore wind, with project areas spanning the Eastern seaboard.

While Clean Ocean Action welcomes renewable energy, these projects raise environmental concerns, explained Peter Blair, policy attorney, Clean Ocean Action, at the July 22 event. 

Unknown Impacts

There have been offshore wind farms, in Europe, for years, but Blair said little is known about the potential cumulative impact of a series of massive offshore installations running the length of the coastline.

“We’re talking about the development of a coastally dependent large industry in our shared waters,” he said. “While that has a lot of benefits from a climate perspective, there are concerns we have about the impacts on the marine and coastal environments.”

As part of an extensive presentation on the future of wind power, Blair raised concerns about the potential impact to wildlife, the fishing industry and shipping patterns.

For birds, especially migrating coastal systems, the presence of huge wind turbines may mean longer migration routes and changes to habitat. More obvious is the potential for collisions with the turbine blades.

Blair also spoke about the potential disturbance to marine mammals, like whales and dolphin, from the construction work, and the increase of risk of collisions with marine life as the number of vessels increase in the environment, during construction and after the turbines are in operation.

A study at a wind farm, in Scotland, found there were fewer birds in the area once the turbines became active.

If migrating birds go around the wind farm area, that will put new stress on the populations, Blaire said. There is also a possibility the electromagnetic fields could impact some species, like sharks, rays, and eels, which may be able to detect the electromagnetic energy around the power cables.

The structures will change the habitat.

“Any time you’re introducing a new, hardened structure to the marine environment, you’re creating an artificial habitat,” he said.

In the Block Island wind array, for instance, researchers found an increase in the number of fish species, as the foundations functioned like an artificial reef, but it may also disrupt the existing ecosystem, Blair said.

The first steps are already underway, with Orsted working its way through the years’ worth of state and federal permitting for its Ocean Wind project, set to be the largest offshore wind farm in the U.S. by far. Plans are to have it generating power by 2024.

For now, New Jersey gets none of its electricity from offshore wind turbines. Plans are to get 7,500 megawatts of power from wind farms by 2035, in a series of six projects of a similar scale of Ocean Wind. That project is expected to generate enough power for a half-million homes.

First Signs of Progress

Out in the distance, miles out from the north end of Sea Isle City, the Vision’s crew is hard at work.

It’s big, at 70 feet, and is different than the far larger freighters often seen closer to the horizon, heading to or from the Delaware Bay and the ports of Philadelphia. Many beachgoers, at least those who notice, presume it has something to do with one of the beach replenishment projects. 

From the beach, in Strathmere, one can see both that vessel and the dredge adding sand to Ocean City’s north end, and there are some similarities, with big, squat vessels churning the waters around them, but staying in the same location.

Unlike the dredge, the Vision extends steel beams into the sandy ocean bottom, lifting itself clear of the water.

“It’s called a jack-up vessel,” said Kris Ohleth, spokesperson, Orsted. Lifting above the waves gives the crew a stable platform to work. The ship is studying the ocean floor, establishing the best routes for the cable that will carry the electricity from the turbines to shore.

The southern cable may come in to the now-idle B.L. England coal fired power plant, in Upper Township, but Ohleth said the company has not yet made a final decision on that. The information gathered by the Vision will be part of that decision, which should be finalized by the end of the year.

The New Jersey coast slopes gradually from the beach, with a consistent sandy bottom extending for miles before reaching the distant deep drop-offs local anglers call the canyons. Plans are for the wind turbines to be about 15 miles off the coast, which Ohleth said will be barely visible from the beach on the horizon on a clear day.

Work could be underway in 2023, she said.

“We’ll have about two years of construction,” she said.

More Projects Coming

The same day as the Clean Ocean Action event, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities issued guidance for solicitation of the second offshore wind project, with applications due by December and a project decision expected in June 2021. According to Ohleth, Orsted plans on applying for that project, as well.

The company is working on a project off Virginia, on behalf of Dominion Energy, and operates the Block Island wind farm.

While Orsted is a major player in offshore energy, it is not the only one with big plans for the Jersey coast. Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind LLC, a partnership between Shell New Energies and EDF Renewables North America, has plans to develop more than 183,000 acres off Atlantic County. According to Blair, they have a lease from the federal government but have not won a solicitation at the state level.

In the July 22 webinar, Blair said Orsted’s Ocean Wind is the project furthest along, in New Jersey, but Empire Wind, off Manasquan Inlet, is in a similar position to connect with New York’s power grid. He showed another map, with swaths of ocean proposed for wind power development from New England to North Carolina.

For Ocean Wind, and other potential projects, the scale of the wind turbines will be enormous. The turbines will sit on monopods in water between 60 to 100 feet deep, standing more than 850 feet above the water. Each blade will be more than 350 feet long. Blair showed an image of a 12 MW turbine next to the Eifel Tower and the Chrysler Building. It was not as tall as either, but was hardly dwarfed by the famous landmarks.

The size of the turbines is getting progressively bigger with each project, Blair said. Plans are for between 90 and 110 megawatt turbines, mostly off the coast of Cape May County.

According to Blair, the expansion of offshore wind will be an important step to minimize the use of fossil fuels, but the organization can't ignore the environmental concerns. The organization sees conservation as the most important step in reducing the impact of climate change.  

Ohleth sat in on the Clean Ocean Action meeting. She said the company has a very high standard on the environment. The permitting process underway will help determine the project’s environmental impact.

“We’re very confident our impacts will not be considered substantial. When they’re reviewed, we’ll get that determination back from regulators,” she said.

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Project at www.SRHub.org

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